FRESNO, Calif. - The New Mexico State softball team arrived in Fresno Tuesday for the 2011 Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Tournament that begins Wednesday with the league's postseason awards banquet and a pair of first-round games at host Fresno State's Bulldog Diamond.
NM State (40-15, 17-4 WAC) earned a first-round bye as the top seed in the tourney after sweeping second-seeded Boise State for its first outright WAC title in Las Cruces last weekend. The Aggies will not play until Thursday at 12:30 p.m. MT in the double elimination tournament when they face the winner of the first-round matchup between the fourth-seeded Hawai'i Rainbow Wahine and the fifth-seeded Utah State Aggies.
This season NM State swept Utah State in Logan on April 1-2. The Aggies lost their only WAC series of the year at Hawai'i with three one-run losses to UH on April 29-30. On the other side of the bracket, No. 3 Fresno State plays No. 6 Louisiana Tech Wednesday for the right to play second-seeded Boise State on Thursday. San Jose State and Nevada did not qualify for the six-team tourney this year.
An Aggie win Thursday keeps NM State in the winner's bracket with its next game slated for Friday. If the Aggies stumble Thursday afternoon they would play later that same day in the consolation bracket.
Last weekend the Crimson and White matched a program-best victory total of 40, set in 1996, with the three-game sweep of BSU marking the sixth season of 30 wins or more at NM State. The Aggies' 17 conference victories is also a program record. NM State won 21 of its final 25 games down the stretch to end the regular season. The Aggies' title is the first of any kind in the program's 37-year history.
NM State posted a record fifth WAC series sweep by taking three games from the Broncos last weekend. The champs also boast a record six series wins in the conference including their first series win against Fresno State in school history April 8-9 two games to one. NM State is 17-6 away from Las Cruces this year with a 6-2 neutral site record.
Fourth-seeded Hawai'i (36-16, 14-7 WAC) is riding a league-best six-game win streak entering the tournament week. The Rainbow Wahine swept San Jose State on the road last weekend after sweeping the Aggies at home the week prior.
UH notched three one-run wins over NM State in Honolulu despite the Aggies leading at some point during each contest. In game one, UH pitcher Stephanie Ricketts held the Aggie offense in check for six innings but NM State tied the game at 1-1 in the seventh inning. The Aggies took the lead in the eighth but UH tied the game again in the bottom of the frame. The Wahine posted the winning run in the tenth, snapping NM State's program-record win streak at 10.
NM State senior Kylie Randall opened game two with a solo home run to right field for a 1-0 lead but UH tied the score in its half of the inning. The Aggies went up 3-1 in the second however UH answered to knot the score again in the third. Then NM State went up 4-3 in the sixth but Hawai'i came back a third time in the bottom of the inning to register a 5-4 victory.
In game three the Aggies jumped out to an early 1-0 lead in the third. UH answered with two in its half of the third then doubled its score in the fourth for a 4-1 advantage. NM State battled back to tie the score at 4-all in the sixth inning but Hawai'i edged the Aggies again with a run in the bottom of the seventh to complete the sweep.
Last season UH swept NM State in Las Cruces en route to its first ranking of 2010. The Rainbow Wahine's season ended a few months later at the College World Series in Oklahoma City. Hawai'i edged NM State in game one 9-8 before putting a pair of double-digit wins on day two of the series, 14-3 and 13-1.
UH leads the all-time series 39-13 over the Aggies. Since joining the WAC in 2005, Hawai'i has won each series against NM State with a record of 15-3. All three Aggie wins in the WAC have occurred in Honolulu including a defeat of the No. 17 Wahine in 2008. The last NM State win occurred on the islands in 2009 with a 3-1 win in game two of the series. The Crimson and White's last series win against Hawai'i occurred in 1993. That year NM State swept four games when both schools were members of the Big West.
This season UH is 12-8 away from the islands including just a 5-4 neutral site record.
The Wahine are led on offense by Jessica Iwata with a .358 batting average. Iwata leads the team with 42 runs scored, 57 hits, 42 RBI, 15 home runs and a .686 slugging percentage. Jenna Rodriguez ranks second on the team with a .312 average at the plate and is second on the squad with 49 hits.
Stephanie Ricketts leads Hawai'i in the circle with a 21-11 record in 36 appearances and a 1.62 ERA. Kaia Parnaby shares duties in the circle with a 1.24 ERA in 19 appearances and a 12-5 record.
Utah State (15-40, 8-13 WAC) won five of its last seven games to finish the regular season and advance to the WAC tournament. Since NM State swept three from the northern Aggies in early April, USU finished the WAC season above .500 at 8-7 including a pair of wins over second seeded Boise State.
This season in Logan, the Aggies held Utah State to just one run on eight hits in game one behind the pitching of sophomore Alex Newman. NM State posted a run in the first, fifth and sixth innings to edge USU by two. In the second game, NM State exploded for nine runs in the sixth and seven innings to put the game out of reach. The Aggies never trailed on the day.
In game three of the series, Aggie freshman Valerie Swedberg led the offense with three RBI off of a two-run home run and game-winning RBI double in the top of the tenth inning to give NM State it's eighth-straight victory. Freshman pitcher Celisha Walker came into the game in the top of the sixth to pitch five straight innings of shutout softball to secure the extra-inning sweep.
The Crimson and White swept Utah State last season in three games at home. In 2009, NM State won two of three from the northern Aggies the last time the series was held in Logan. Utah State leads the all-time series 46-43. NM State head coach Kathy Rodolph is 17-3 all-time versus USU after the 2011 sweep.
USU is led on offense by Allison Lenzora with a .358 average. Kassandra Uchida stands just behind with a .338 clip from the plate. Tina Ferguson ranks next with a .311 average. Kelley Kaneshiro leads the team with 10 homers and 23 RBI this season.
In the circle, Shelbi Tyteca leads USU with a 4.90 ERA and a 6-11 record. Mandy Harmon has nine of Utah State's wins this season with an ERA of 5.57 starting 25 of her 44 appearances.
Aggie all-time home run leader Hoku Nohara leads the nation in home runs (21) and home runs per game (.42) as of the last NCAA stat release May 8. Just as impressive, Nohara is second in the country for walks (1.18), slugging percentage (1.016) and on-base percentage (.621). Her career home run total of 61 is one shy of the all-time WAC home run mark of 62.
Senior Kandis Jones owns the NM State single-season record with 78 hits this year. That count leads the WAC as do her 191 at-bats and her 57 runs scored. Jones ranks only behind Nohara with a .408 clip at the plate in the conference. She also heads the WAC with 25 multi-hit games in 2011.
Junior Tiare Jennings leads the WAC with 213 plate appearances this year. She ranks in the top four among eight other league statistical categories including home runs (15 - T-No. 2), RBI (53 - No. 2), on-base percentage (.516 - No. 3), walks (48 - No. 2), total bases (112 - No. 2), runs scored (55 - No. 2), slugging percentage (.709 - No. 3), batting average (.367 - No. 4) and hits (58 - No. 4). In each of those categories she stands second or third on the team this season.
Randall leads the WAC with 34 stolen bases this season to rank No. 18 nationally. With 54 runs scored, she is third in the conference while her 68 hits rates second in the league. The Aggies' all-time bag robber is 32-of-34 on the season. Randall also leads the WAC with four triples this year.
Freshman Valerie Swedberg comes into the tourney after winning WAC Hitter of the Week Honors for her performance against Boise State when she hit .700 at the plate. Swedberg hit her ninth home run of 2011 and two doubles while batting in six runs versus the Broncos. She notched at least a pair of hits in each game against BSU. She is tied for second in the WAC with 13 doubles this season. Swedberg's slugging percentage of .684 ranks fifth in the WAC and her 43 RBI rate fourth in the league.
Sophomore Teresa Conrad boasts eight home runs. The infielder also ranks fourth in the WAC with 42 RBI. Her 39 runs scored ranks fifth in the conference.
Classmate Tehani Kaaihue also boasts eight homers this year. Half of those have come in the past three weeks all from the ninth spot in the NM State batting order. Her slugging percentage in conference games ranks sixth overall at .673.
Sophomore Alex Newman leads the Aggies in the circle with a 21-6 record in 40 appearances and a 3.61 ERA. Newman is among the top 38 nationally with 21 wins -one shy of the best victory total in program history set by former Aggie hurler Sarah Seagraves in 2005.
As a team, NM State ranks among the top 10 in four key offensive categories in the latest NCAA stats. The Aggies boast a .345 batting average at the plate to rank fifth nationally. NM State's slugging percentage of .558 rates sixth in the country. The Aggies are seventh in the nation for scoring 7.15 runs per game this year and NM State ranks seventh nationally in home runs per game (1.33).