FRESNO - The Fresno State softball team officially opened practice on Tuesday, one month before its season opener. The 'Dogs will have practice or other team activities six days a week leading up to facing Oregon to open the Kajikawa Classic on Feb. 9 in Tempe, Ariz. "Preseason is always challenging," head coach Linda Garza said. "We have a strong schedule that will challenge our returners and newcomers early. It's a great opportunity to figure out things and prepare everyone for conference play."
In the month of preseason training the 'Dogs will work their way back into game form following the holiday break.
"The objective is always to get back into the swing of things, get the kinks out, and start working at championship level with consistency," Garza said.
The team is nearly evenly split between returners (13) and newcomers (12). The integration of the two groups began in fall practice and continues into the spring with a team that is comprised of five seniors, seven juniors, six sophomores, and seven freshmen.
A constant this season is the coaching staff, which returns intact after Garza's first year at the helm in 2017.
"It's great to be surrounded by winners and people you trust," she said. "I've worked alongside every coach on staff in some capacity and together we have had success."
The 'Dogs return five position player starters, including All-Mountain West second team center fielder Vanessa Hernandez and All-Pacific Region first team selection Savannah McHellon. Hernandez, a junior, started all 58 games last season hitting .292 with seven home runs and 40 RBIs and leading the team with 22 extra-base hits.
McHellon led the team with 10 home runs and 44 RBIs while hitting .282 last year in her first season as a Bulldog. The former Junior College All-American also pitched in 21 games with 16 starts, picking up five wins and a save as she will be looked upon to lead the team both at the plate and in the circle.
The team returns a wealth of talent and brings in a strong group of newcomers, including five transfers. Three of the incoming transfers have previous Div. I experience (Emily Brodner - Illinois, Hayleigh Galvan - Oklahoma State, and Rachel Minogue - Eastern Kentucky) while Jade Nua and Dolly Stevens were two of the best junior college players in the state of California last year.
The Bulldogs will have a new catcher this season as Brodner and freshman Priscilla Ortega will look to fill the spot left by the graduation of Lindsey Willmon. The rest of the 2017 starting infield returns in McHellon (1B), sophomore Miranda Rohleder (2B), senior Katie Castellon (SS), and sophomores Haley Fuller and Schuylar Broussard, who split time at third base.
The 'Dogs will have new starters flanking Hernandez in left and right field and a new primary designated player. McHellon, sophomore Samantha Mejia, and senior Sarah Santana are the team's returning pitchers and will be joined by freshmen Danielle East and Savannah Berkowitz.
Fresno State has made three straight trips to the NCAA Regionals and has won at least 30 games in 36 consecutive seasons. With a large roster turnover the team will look to new leaders in 2018 and, in addition to their physical abilities, Garza finds the biggest strength of the team to be its coachability.
"This group is eager to learn, wants to get better, and came here to win." She said. "Our leadership takes pride in doing the little things well, and with that mentality we will put ourselves in positions to win."