‘Finish the job’: Boise State softball in driver’s seat for Mountain West Tournament
Boise State softball coach Justin Shults isn’t surprised that his team has a chance to make history this week.
He knew he had key pieces returning to a team that tied the program record with 40 wins last season. He knew he had one of the best hitters in the nation in Kelsey Hall, whose .920 slugging percentage ranks No. 5 in the sport.
The Broncos clinched the second regular season Mountain West championship in program history with a win at Fresno State last Friday, and they’re the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, which is being played for the first time since 2006 and begins Thursday at San Diego State.
Boise State, which didn’t field a softball team until 2012, now has a chance to win its first Mountain West Tournament title and can punch its ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in the past six years.
“Our job is to take care of business this weekend,” said Shults, who watched his team miss out on a tournament bid last season, despite trailing conference champion San Diego State by just one game in the standings. “We don’t want to leave our fate up to 12 people sitting in a room.”
Hosting conference tourney action is a Boise State softball goal. It needs lights first
The conference tournament champion automatically qualifies for the NCAA Tournament, and the Mountain West usually has only one team make it.
Shults said that probably will be the case again this year because he expects teams from the SEC to claim at least 10 of the tournament’s 32 at-large spots, and teams from other Power Five conferences to gobble up most of what’s left.
“This is a resilient bunch,” Shults said. “We try to learn from every experience. Last weekend was the perfect example. We won the conference title and we were on cloud nine. Then we had to turn around and play a good Fresno State team again the next day, and we didn’t play our best ball. We were reminded how fickle this sport can be and that we can’t have an off day, especially this time of year.”
Boise State (31-15) will open the conference tournament at 5 p.m. Mountain time Thursday against Fresno State or San Jose State, who face off in a play-in game earlier in the day. The Broncos and No. 2 San Diego State have first-round byes, and the tournament switches to a double-elimination format after the play-in games.
“Looking at the roster and the support from a new administration, I thought we could be good pretty quick,” said Shults, who was hired in June 2021. “I’m so proud of this team and how they’ve gelled over the year. Now we just have to finish the job.”
The #MWSB Championship makes its return next week in San Diego
The bracket is set with @BroncoSportsSB, @AztecSoftball, @CSUSoftball, @SanJoseStateSB, @FresnoStateSB and @Nevada_Softball competing for the crown #AtThePEAK | #MakingHerMark pic.twitter.com/nX7bx3xYvX
— Mountain West (@MountainWest) May 6, 2023
Shults said the Broncos just needed a few things to fall into place defensively to be a championship-caliber team. What the second-year head coach didn’t know was how well his team would respond to a daunting schedule.
The early portion included two games against Georgia, which finished No. 13 in the final USA Today/NFCA Division I Top 25 poll. The Broncos also faced No. 5 Washington and No. 7 Stanford, and UCF and Arizona State were both ranked when the Broncos played them.
Boise State’s record was 9-10 when it hosted Portland State on March 11 in the Broncos’ first home series of the season. It was during that chilly weekend that the team began to see the fruits of its labor with a sweep in three five-inning games, including a 24-6 shellacking in the finale. The Broncos totaled 47 runs, 35 hits and 16 home runs during their first series at Dona Larsen Park.
The Broncos went 19-5 since that first home series, and they finished the regular season with a program-record 79 home runs — breaking the single-season mark of 74, which they set just last year.
Shults said depth and great communication led to the team’s success at the plate.
“I coach third base, so I don’t usually get to see it up close, but I always see them talking and giving each other feedback in the dugout,” he said. “This is an unselfish group. Even if they don’t have individual success, they work really hard to set their teammates up to succeed.”
Hall, a senior outfielder from Sacramento, California, has been the catalyst at the plate. Her .409 batting average leads the team and ranks No. 2 in the Mountain West. She also leads the Broncos and the conference with a .531 batting average, and her 11 home runs are tied for No. 2 on the team with Jordyn Hutchins, a junior from Knights Landing, California.
Hall was named Mountain West Player of the Year on Wednesday. Shults was named Mountain West Coach of the Year.
Boise State has four players in double digits in home runs this season, including fifth-year senior Eliyah Flores, who is tied for No. 1 in the Mountain West with 12. Sophomore Mykenzie Hanna has 10.
Redshirt senior Serena Huchingson finished the regular season with nine home runs, former Eagle High standout Sydney Groves added eight and redshirt junior Alycia Flores chipped in with seven.
“Kelsey solidified the middle of the batting order, but she couldn’t have done it without great hitters behind her because teams would just pitch around her,” Shults said. “The key, when it comes to be a great-hitting team, is depth, because that keeps the pressure on the pitcher.”
While the offense shined most of the season, Boise State leaned on pitching and defense as well.
Ace Lindsey Walljasper held Fresno State to one hit in a complete-game shutout to clinch the conference title last Friday. She’s 13-5 overall and 7-1 against Mountain West teams this season, and she was named the conference’s pitcher of the week on Tuesday.
Taylor Caudill, a junior from Mission Viejo, California, went 14-8 in the pitching circle this season. She ended the regular season with a 2.82 ERA and 129 strikeouts.
Shults said he needs his pitchers to throw a few more gems this week because success in the postseason comes down to playing great defense.
“From here on out, it’s about which team can hold its opponent to no more than three or four runs,” he said. “Every team we’re going to face has great pitching, so we can’t just rely on our bats.”