The BYU softball team will play in its first Western Athletic Conference series this weekend, facing New Mexico State on Friday with a double-header on Saturday.
BYU is in a transition year for conferences, joining the WAC for one season until next year when it will join the Pacific Coast Softball Conference. The Cougars are facing multiple tough teams in the WAC including Hawaii, Fresno State and New Mexico State. BYU was chosen to finish fourth in the WAC standings, but is currently sitting in second place behind Hawaii in preseason play. NMSU was polled to finish third in the WAC and is currently fourth in the standings with a record of 17-12.
NMSU is a force offensively. The BYU pitching staff will have to be strong facing an Aggie team who is ranked first in the WAC in batting average (.314), hits per game (8.59) and second in on base percentage (.399).
The Cougars are led by junior pitcher Hannah Howell and sophomore pitcher Tori Almond. Howell leads the team with a record of 8-4 along with 58 strikeouts. Almond had an impressive freshman year last year and after coming back from an illness at the beginning of this season, has produced on the mound. She is holding opponents to a batting average of .202 and is coming off a complete game last week against Purdue where she tied her career high of 10 strikeouts.
Pitching coach Vaughn Alvey said his staff will have to get ahead in order to handle the offense NMSU will throw at them.
“We need to get ahead of hitters so that we can use all of our pitches,” Alvey said.
BYU also has two seniors driving the team offensively in outfielder Delaney Willard and infielder Stacie Toney.
Willard is leading the WAC in batting average (.493), slugging percentage (.910) and total bases (61). Willard is a force to be dealt with, mixing power and patience to produce a deadly combination for the Cougars right in the meat of the lineup. Toney has also brought a huge lift to the lineup this season. She leads the team with 10 multi-hit games and has a batting average of .397, not to mention a solo blast in Tuesday’s game against Idaho State.
After struggling all last season, Toney said she has worked hard to get where she is now.
“Last year, I struggled quite a bit and this year I just came with a determined attitude,” Toney said. “Softball’s a game of failure and you have to learn how to accept the failure and learn from it, and then adjust so that you can succeed the next time.”
Head coach Gordon Eakin said he has been pleased with the senior leadership of both Willard and Toney so far this season.
“Delaney Willard has been just right there for us all year long and has really driven this team offensively,” Eakin said. “Stacie Toney has stepped up and provided that pop offensively as well, and some leadership.”
The Cougars have been inconsistent both in pitching and offense throughout the preseason, but they look to improve by playing to their strengths and focusing on the positives.
Eakin said the strengths of his team will be enough against NMSU if they come out playing like they are capable of.
“We don’t game plan for opponents,” Eakin said. “We play to our strengths and not to the opponents weakness. I think we have to play our game and so we’re going to approach it like we would any other game, whether it was New Mexico State or Arizona State last weekend. We’ll just play our game and play to our strengths and if we do, they’ll have to play a good game to beat us.”
BYU will play Friday at 6 p.m. MT and Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. at Miller Park. All three games will also be broadcast live on BYUtv.