Colorado State softball will travel to Albuquerque this weekend with first place in their sights.
The Rams (15-10, 3-3 MW) currently sit in a tie for fifth place in the Mountain West, but are only one game back of the four teams tied at the top. New Mexico (16-12, 2-1 MW) stands as one of the four teams above CSU after their series victory over the University of Las Vegas.
Last weekend, the Rams handed San Diego State their second straight conference series loss, the first time the Aztecs have lost their first two series in conference since 2005.
The Mountain West as a whole is deep with all nine schools in the top 150 in RPI, something only five other conferences can say. CSU currently sits at 77 while the Lobos sit at 143.
“I think we kind of took them lightly last year at home and they jumped all over us,” head coach Jen Fisher said. “They aren’t just going to roll over, they are going to fight.”
The Rams have earned the 77th rank due to their sporadic but explosive offense. The Aztecs felt that last week when CSU scored six runs in the first inning of their second matchup and then had two separate five run innings in the third game.
Sophomore Amber Nelson leads the way on offense as her .477 batting average, .611 on base percentage, .923 slugging percentage and nine home runs are the top marks in conference. She also leads the team in RBI with 27, with the next closest being fellow sophomore Lauren Buchanan with 19.
It helps to have the newly crowned CSU all-time career leader in runs scored, senior Haley Hutton, batting leadoff and reaching base every way she can. Hutton passed Jennifer Buford last weekend by recording her 167th run. CSU is 80-38 in games where Hutton has scored at least one run since 2014.
Hutton’s 28 runs this season are tied for the third most in the Mountain West and looks to add to her total against a group of New Mexico pitchers posting an average season. The Lobos look to rely on their defense as they rank last in the Mountain West in strikeouts with 81, but do rank third in walks with only 64 free bases given up.
“When you get into a groove you are kind of right towards the end of all the work you have done,” Fisher said on her team’s offensive surge. “Everyone see it and you get all these accolades, but if you don’t keep working it goes to crap really fast.”
Senior Tess McPherson leads the Lobos in innings pitched and owns a 3.29 ERA which is 12th best in conference and her .249 batting average against is seventh best. She has given up 31 walks however, which plays into the hands of the Rams as they are second in the conference in drawing walks with 110 this season.
The main concern for CSU will be their pitching, as New Mexico brings seniors Shelbie Franc and Jasmine Casados to the plate. Franc is second in the Mountain West in batting average at .466 and Casados is tied for the most hits this season with 39.
“That Jasmine Casados is a pretty potent offensive kid,” Fisher said.
However, their offensive numbers have not translated into consistent offense as the Lobos are seventh in conference in runs scored — only four runs more than CSU, who is in last.
The threat of the Lobos is still nothing to be taken lightly for CSU pitchers. Sophomore Kaylynn Pierce found a groove last weekend when she picked up both wins for the Rams against San Diego State University. She pitched 12 innings and allowed only six earned runs over the weekend against a team picked to finish second in the conference.
Outside of Pierce, junior Larisa Petakoff pitched two innings with two very different outcomes. She closed the second game victory after Pierce got into trouble, but struggled the third game where she allowed three runs in the second inning and was pulled before recording an out in the inning.
“We feel like we finally executed in some clutch situations…I feel like we are starting to get a little bit settled in with our pitching so I think that is something we can take advantage of,” Fisher said on what her team can utilize against the Lobos’ lack of experience so far this season after a bye week early in the season.
The pitchers will look to bounce back this weekend as the first game against the Lobos gets underway Friday at 5 p.m.. Games two and three will be Saturday at 1 p.m. and Sunday at 12 p.m.
Collegian sports reporter Austin White can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ajwrules44