By David Cohn
The final countdown towards the start of Pac-12 softball has already begun for the Stanford Cardinal, as the Stanford Louisville Slugger Classic is now all that stands between the Card and their pre-finals-week matchup with archrival Cal to start Pac-12 play. The Cardinal will face four teams this weekend at Boyd and Jill Smith Family Stadium: the BYU Cougars, the Portland State Vikings, the North Dakota State Bison and the UC-Davis Aggies.
Stanford will begin the tourney with a Thursday night matchup against BYU. The Cougars (7-10) have had an up-and-down start to their season so far; BYU’s high point in its 2014 campaign was certainly its victory over then-No. 2 Tennessee as part of last weekend’s San Diego Classic. In handing the Volunteers their only loss of the season so far, BYU jumped on UT starter Cheyenne Tarrango, tagging her for seven hits and three earned runs. The Cougars’ win over the Volunteers highlights the potency of their offense: the squad has scored 97 runs in 17 games this season, representing an average of nearly six runs per contest.
However, BYU’s struggles this season have coincided with some severe lapses in the circle. The Cougars’ pitching staff has posted an sky-high team ERA of 5.35 thus far, with its low point coming in a doubleheader against Nevada and then-No. 22 Minnesota on Feb. 15; in those two contests as part of the Easton Desert Classic, BYU gave up 20 runs to the Wolfpack and 13 runs to the Gophers.
After facing the Cougars on Thursday night, the Cardinal will square off against the Portland State Vikings and the North Dakota State (NDSU) Bison in a Friday afternoon doubleheader. The Vikings (3-9) have already faced two Pac-12 squads this season, having lost to both Cal and Utah in previous non-conference tournaments. Portland State has also had significant pitching problems this season, with a team ERA of 5.94. The Vikings are led on offense by junior Aubrey Nitschelm, who is hitting .324 with a home run and 10 RBIs so far this season.
The Bison (10-6) have had a solid start to their 2014 season, with victories over No. 23 Notre Dame and Houston, two 2013 NCAA tournament teams. NDSU has hit well as a team, posting a .305 batting average, while scoring more than five runs per game. The NDSU lineup currently features four players batting above .325, including All-Summit League first team selection and Bay Area product Jenina Ortega.
Finally, the Cardinal will cap off the Stanford Louisville Classic with a rematch on Sunday afternoon against UC-Davis. The Cardinal blasted the Aggies (7-16) in their first meeting in Davis, Calif.; the Card proceeded to mercy-rule Davis in five innings by a 10-1 margin. In that contest, junior Cassandra Roulund tied her career high with 5 RBIs against the Aggies, including a bases-clearing double in the top of the third inning of that game that broke a scoreless draw and gave the Card a 3-0 lead.
Davis has faced a tremendously difficult opening stretch to its 2014 campaign. To date, the Aggies have played eight teams that have been ranked at some point this season, with a single victory over Arkansas to show for their efforts. On the other hand, Davis has been run-ruled by four ranked teams, including 17-1 and 16-2 routs at the hands of Baylor and Washington, respectively. The Aggies did play a close game against then-No. 24 Notre Dame, falling 12-11 in an offensive slugfest during the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic.
UC-Davis’ pitching rotation has struggled against elite competition so far this year, as starters Dana Cruse and Leah Munden have both posted ERAs north of 4.00. In turn, a third starter, freshman Andrea Reynolds, has a 3.93 ERA and 2-4 record in 16 appearances. Offensively, the Aggies are anchored by sophomore Kelly Zboralske, who is first or second on her team in batting average, RBIs, home runs, slugging percentage and total bases.
Stanford begins the Louisville Slugger Classic at 6 p.m. on Thursday night against BYU at Boyd and Jill Smith Family Stadium, followed by Friday matchups with Portland State and North Dakota State University at 2:30 p.m. and 4:45 p.m., respectively.
Contact David Cohn at dmcohn ‘at’ stanford.edu.