By Tom Mauldin 2/3/2021
Surrounded by a myriad of questions about the 2021 season, softball is IN the news.
One Northwest NAIA team — College of Idaho — has already played six games (winning four) with many other teams looking at season openers the first two weekends in February.
And Five PAC-12 teams, including Washington and Oregon, are ranked among the top dozen in NCAA Division 1 play.
COI (Caldwell, ID) got off to a quick start in Arizona and got impressive pitching performances from former Fastpitch Northwest standout juniors Hannah McNerney (Hood River, OR) and Katie Wilfert. (Meridian, ID)
The No. 17-ranked Yotes, coached by Al Mendiola, are the first Northwest team to see action in 2021. Their last game was March 7 when they swept Northwest University to give them a 13-7 record in the shortened 2020 pandemic season.
Both Wilfert and McNerney shared the impact of being on the field again.
“(Not having last season), this meant more. We all loved the feeling of being out on the field and competing again.” Said Wilfert.
“It felt so good to play,” said McNerney.
Mendiola loved the energy.
“It feels great seeing the energy of the girls and the excitement on their faces,” said Mendiola, who noted that COI was limited to what they could do in the fall, “so there was a lot of excitement heading to Arizona to play.”
Despite strong pitching from McNerney and Wilfert, the Yotes dropped a Friday double header against Taylor University (Upland, IN) , 3-1 and 5-3, then took two from Arizona Christian University (Glendale, AZ), 16-6 and 8-0. Wilfert threw a two-hit shutout in the second game. On Monday, COI defeated Ottawa (Surprise, AZ), 11-1, and 9-1. McNerney retired the final 18 in a row in the first game.
The rest of the Northwest teams will get into action in the next two weeks and several Cascade Collegiate Conference teams are filling out their lineup cards:
NAIA preseason No. 1 Southern Oregon University (Ashland, OR) opens the season Feb. 5 against Simpson University in Redding (CA). SOU won the 2019 national title.
Corban (Salem, OR), ranked No. 23 will open the season on the road on Feb. 6 against Simpson (Redding, CA).
OIT (Klamath Falls, OR) will begin play Saturday in Rocklin (CA) against Arizona Christian University.
Other CCC teams will open their seasons on Valentine’s weekend. They include Bushnell (Eugene, OR), Eastern Oregon (LaGrande, OR), Providence University (Great Falls, MT), Carroll College (Helena, MT.), University of British Columbia (Surrey, CAN), and Warner Pacific (Portland, OR).
Western Washington (Bellingham, WA) will be the first Great Northwest Athletic Conference team to begin play when it takes the diamond against NAIA rival Northwest University.
Northwest Nazarene (Nampa, ID) will host D3 Puget Sound (Tacoma, WA) on Feb. 19.
Boise State, a Mountain West member, will open the season Feb. 12 at Georgia Tech in Atlanta (GA).
Idaho State opens Feb. 5 at UNLV, Montana opens Feb. 12 in Phoenix and Portland State opens Feb. 26 in Phoenix. All three are members of the Big Sky Conference.
Western Athletic Conference member Seattle University also hits the diamond in February.
All of the teams in the NCAA Division 2 GNAC have openers scheduled no later than Feb. 20. In addition to WWU and NNU, BNAC teams include St. Martins (Lacey, WA), Simon Fraser (Burnaby, CAN), Montana State (Billings, MT), Western Oregon (Monmouth, OR), Central Washington (Ellensburg, WA) and Seattle Pacific (Seattle, WA).
Puget Sound will be the first Northwest Conference team to see action. Other NWC teams include Linfield (Linfield, OR), Willamette (Salem, OR), George Fox (Newberg, OR), Lewis & Clark (Portland, OR), Pacific University (Forest Grove, OR) and Whitworth (Spokane, WA).
The Northwest Athletic Conference (NWAC) will begin play in March while the College of Southern Idaho (National Junior College Athletic Association member) started the season Jan. 28 and is 1-3.
As expected, UCLA — boosting the return of a pair of Team USA players — was an overwhelming No. 1 in the first NCAA D1 rankings of 2021. Washington was ranked third and Oregon grabbed the No. 12 spot.
Other PAC-12 teams cracked the Top 25 as well with No. 4 Arizona and No. 17 Arizona State.
Oklahoma was ranked No. 2 and LSU No. 5.
UCLA is loaded with returnees and all but one senior opted to accept the pandemic fifth-year rule of eligibility. As it was, the Bruins won 25 of 26 games and did so without 2019 Player of the Year Rachel Garcia and fellow Olympian Bubba Nickels.
Both are back along with 19 other returning players and four highly touted incoming freshmen.
“I am completely spoiled with the athletes that I have,” stated UCLA head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez.
And who wouldn’t be with a lineup that could feature seven or eight All-Americans.
While the different divisions are opening seasons over the next three to four weeks, they all share one thing in common: Noting that their schedules can be changed or canceled at any time as they monitor and work within local, state, and federal health directives due to COVID.
Meanwhile, state high school associations are moving forward with spring softball seasons, each state with a different start date: Idaho and Montana in March, Oregon in April and Washington in May.
Fastpitch Northwest is taking early registrations for Prospect Evaluation Camps to begin in June. Camp dates and locations are posted and aspiring next level players can register now at www.fastpitchnw.com