As recently as 1998, Fresno State softball reached the pinnacle of athletic excellence when the Margie Wright-coached Bulldogs won the school’s first-ever Division 1 National Championship. This feat has only ever been replicated by the men’s baseball team with its National Championship win in 2008.
The 2021 softball team had a record of 37-12, making them the Mountain West Champions for the first time since the back-to-back championship seasons of 2015-16.
Although the team had a successful season in 2021, it would not go without controversy. This is where a large portion of the 2022 losing season’s issues arose. The Bulldogs finished 19-36 and were ranked No. 5 in the Mountain West. Hopefully, with a new coaching staff and new faces on the team, there’s a chance for a turnaround.
In 2016, Fresno State hired Fresno native Linda Garza when former coach Trisha Ford left for the Arizona State coaching position.
The hire was a feel-good story — Garza demonstrated her capabilities as a coach, making her way up the coaching ladder with stints as an assistant coach at Arkansas, Tulsa, and Purdue. She was also head coach at UC Riverside and Wright State.
Her time at Fresno State gave the Bulldogs moderate success, eventually leading to the Mountain West Championship in 2021. However, Garza was not present due to a forced leave.
An alleged altercation with her own athlete, Kaitlyn Jennings, made Garza miss the championship.
“Coach Garza then grabbed me again by the front of my jersey and shoved me into the dugout wall, holding me there while she continued to yell at me. She only let go of me after I said, ‘You can’t do this right now, there’s people around,’” Jennings told ABC30.
The pressure that coaches put on athletes has been a growing problem in college athletics nationwide. Coaches’ actions are being overlooked by the university for the betterment of keeping the team’s foundation whole. In Fresno State’s case, administrators acted correctly by parting ways.
This is what led to a difficult 2022 season. When building up an athletic program, consistency is essential for an athlete’s success. A changing coaching staff for the 2022 season resulted in a loss in culture.
All-Mountain West Team and Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Hailey Dolcini, after having a standout season, transferred out of the Valley to the open arms of the Texas Longhorns softball team in November 2021.
The Austin American-Statesman reported that Dolcini “wanted to chase a championship” with her move to University of Texas. An understandable decision given the circumstances that the Fresno State team was facing.
With Garza gone, and a subdued silence from active players regarding her actions, it’s hard for a team to build back a strong season with a new coach, Stacy May-Johnson, who took over this year
With a below-average season and new coaching staff, recruits that were on the fence for playing at Fresno State now see that the program has dropped off, furthering the instability issues that follow Bulldog athletics.
May-Johnson’s coaching stats have proven that she can turn around a program. In her two previous seasons at Utah Valley, May-Johnson brought the team’s winning percentage up from .322 to .507.
It is still early in May-Johnson’s career here at Fresno State, and the issues created by Garza’s actions may persist for another season, but there is a renowned hope that in 2023 the team will regain some of its much-needed spirit and hype to once again be the top dogs of the conference.