By Daniel Reedy:
San Jose State is set to face CSU Fullerton in the Spartans’ first NCAA Tournament game since 2013.
The Titans (33-21, 16-5) enter the contest following consecutive Big West conference championships. In last year’s tournament, the Titans opened the postseason by beating SJSU’s rival Fresno State before dropping back-to-back games to UCLA. SJSU (36-17, 16-8) has yet to win an NCAA tournament game going 0-6 in program history.
Both teams lost their last series two games to one, but those losses followed winning streaks of eight for the Spartans and nine for the Titans.
“I think we got a great draw and I am sure Fullerton feels the same way,” said SJSU head coach Peter Turner. “Everybody in this tournament is in there for a reason and I would like to think they have to fear us.”
But the Spartan lineup will face one of the top pitchers on the West Coast in Kelsey Kessler (19-7) who owns a 1.46 ERA. She is tied for second in the Big West in wins and is third in ERA and strikeouts.
Kessler formerly pitched under Spartans pitching coach Letty Olivarez when the two were at Arizona State.
The Titans also boast threats on offense, headlined by two slugging seniors and a speedy sophomore.
Fourth-year outfielder Delynn Rippy leads the team in hitting and is fourth in the Big West with a .358 average. Fellow senior, designated player, Lexi Gonzalez is tied for third in the conference in home runs (10) and is second with 39 RBIs. Second-year outfielder Ariana Williams is tied for second in the Big West with 24 steals to go with her .314/.412/.480 slash line.
But the Spartans have plenty of talent to counter, including two top-5 pitchers in-conference, the Mountain West’s first-ranked defense and an aggressive lineup.
Seniors Katelyn Linford and Collette Riggs are a combined 33-11 on the season. Linford is second in the conference in ERA, Riggs is third. Linford is fourth in opposing batting average, Riggs is sixth.
SJSU has a .970 fielding percentage despite starting four underclassmen on the infield — including two freshmen.
The offense has struggled at times but found its stroke in the second half, led by freshmen Cassidy Clark and Georgia Blair. The No. 3 and 4 hitters are each hitting above .372 and the duo has struck a combined 10 times this season.
Senior Casey Watt cooled off toward the end of the season, but was incredible in the biggest series of the year, a sweep over Utah State to put the Spartans in excellent position to clinch the conference title the following weekend.
She spoke on the team’s confidence heading into the contest and likes the set up for the Spartans first game of the double elimination tournament.
“Looking at how they’ve done and how they’ve matched up and we’ve matched up — it’s very similar,” Watt said.
Watt is just 1 for 9 in her last three games but went 8 for 11 with three RBIs and three runs against the formerly-first place Aggies.
While Fullerton was projected to win the Big West, the Spartans were projected to finish third in the Mountain West in the preseason polls.
After all the success through abundant off-the-field (kind of) adversity, this tournament is what Clark called the “last shot for the year.”
“I never want this season to end,” Clark said. “[We want to] keep it going as long as we can.”
Round 1 begins for the Spartans with a 6 p.m. scheduled start time against Fullerton.