Long Beach State coming in hot to Big West play

Long Beach State will enter conference play as winners of 16 of its last 19 games.

Oscar Terrones, Staff Writer

The Long Beach State softball team will begin conference play this weekend as the hottest team in the Big West when it travels to UC Davis to face a struggling Aggies team.

The 49ers (23-9), winners of 16 of their last 19 games, will have their hands full during conference play.

“Overall, I think that our conference is definitely stronger this year,” head coach Kim Sowder said. “We have five teams in the top 100 for RPI, which is definitely an improvement. I know every team can beat every other team and it’s a battle once you get to conference,” she said.

The 49ers excellent play has been necessary to this point, as six of the eight teams in the Big West have a winning record, and three have 20 wins; UC Santa Barbara (20-8) and Cal State Northridge (21-10) are the other two.

The 49ers are in first place by the slimmest of margins. Their .719 winning percentage is only slightly ahead of UC Santa Barbara’s .714. The Gauchos got off  to a terrific start to their season, winning nine out of their first 11 games. The Gauchos have stumbled in their last several games, however, losing three out of their last five, including back-to-back games.

“[UC Santa Barbara’s] obviously done real well offensively, putting runs on the board,” Sowder said. “Their pitching staff has been solid, and they’re a solid team. They’ve been very successful ,and it’s gonna come down to game day.”

The Matadors, much like the 49ers, got off to an inconsistent start, unable to put together a string of wins. They’ve rebounded in a big way, however, having won 15 out of their last 17. Their record is a bit misleading, though, as they’ve benefitted greatly from beating up on mostly weak opponents including Utah State, Harvard and Pacific.

“They’ve had a big improvement this year. I think they’re a hot team right now,” Sowder said. “They’re getting some good pitching in the circle. They’re finding ways to win games. They’re pretty solid all the way around.”

The other teams the 49ers will have to do battle with include Cal Poly (18-11), Cal State Fullerton (18-12), and the defending Big West champions, Hawaii (13-14). Despite Hawaii’s struggles, the 49ers don’t intend on taking them lightly.

“They’re a good program,” Sowder said. “It’s a new season once you get to conference, and teams can turn things around. They have a solid team, no doubt about it.”

It is still unclear when Ashlynn Booker, who is tied for second on the team for in home runs with six, will return to the field. The 49ers’ power-hitting infielder suffered a concussion in the first game of the San Diego Classic II 13 days ago in San Diego.

“She’s doing better,” Sowder said. “We’d love to get her back in the lineup as soon as possible.”

Booker is one of several players who are dealing with some sort of ailment, though others much less severe. This led Sowder to cancel regular Tuesday practice.

“We have some girls that I think really could benefit from the rest, more than taking another ground ball or a swing of the bat,” Sowder said.

While Booker is struggling to come back from her concussion, center fielder Leilani Tupua-Tautalatasi, who was named the Big West Player of the Week, has recovered nicely from a concussion of her own. Tupua-Tautalatasi said she doesn’t think individual awards are all that important.

“One person can’t do everything,” she said. “Individual awards are cool, but I’ve always thought they’re politics. I’d rather have a conference title than a Big West award.”

Tupua-Tautalatasi said the recovery from her concussion was mostly frustrating because of strict safety rules.

“The NCAA regulations for concussions are gnarly,” she said. “I had to wait four days just take another test. The first day I felt like crap. The rest of the days I was more annoyed that they wouldn’t clear me. They gave me a lot of leeway. I was only out for about a week.”

The 49ers’ first conference series will be at UC Davis, a team that’s struggled greatly right from the start of the season. The Aggies never quite got their footing, losing 13 of their first 18 games. The 49ers will play a three games series, beginning with a double-header on Saturday and concluding the following the day.

“We’re all even,” Sowder said. “Our biggest competition right now is UC Davis. That’s who we’re playing and that’s our focus. I don’t care what anybody else does except for day one on Saturday.”