After a non-conference schedule that featured three top 25 teams, two of which are in the top 10, the Idaho State softball team has entered conference play battle-tested.
The Bengals hold a 9-14 overall record with four of those 14 losses coming to teams that were ranked in the top 25 in last week’s coaches poll.
The Bengals lost to third-ranked Oregon twice on March 10 and 11 and dropped a game to eighth-ranked Minnesota on February 26. ISU beat 25th-ranked Cal Poly 1-0 on February 24 and lost to the Mustangs 7-5 the following day.
The Bengals fell 9-3 in the first game against the Ducks and outhit Oregon 7-5, but were outhit 9-2 in the second matchup which only needed five innings to determine a winner.
“It shows there’s a lot of things to look forward to,” said head coach Candi Letts. “It’s not even potential, it shows how good we can be once we start doing the little things better.”
ISU split with Penn State the previous weekend and walloped Buffalo 21-9 and 9-4 the same weekend.
“In the beginning of the season, we needed to play, we needed to practice outside,” Letts said. “Now that we are doing that a little bit more, we are more consistent in things that we do.”
In ISU’s first conference game of the season, the Bengals beat Portland State 14-0 in four innings, tying a school record for most home runs hit in a single game with six before losing 10-2 in the second game of a doubleheader in another game that was decided by a mercy rule.
“Bipolar,” said senior Ashlyn Ames on the day split with the Vikings. “That’s the best way I can put it. We came out two different teams. I think we got content with ourselves and that is a huge learning block.”
ISU lost five seniors from last year’s squad, three of which were consistent starters and one of which was the team’s ace in the circle.
“We still need to grow,” Letts said. “We have young kids but I never let that be an excuse … They just need to have more game time experience because the more they do the more smart and sharper we are going to get.”
In the conference opener against Portland State, freshman Emma Bordenkecher went three-for-three, hitting two home runs and a double while driving in five. Bordenkecher’s bombs were her first of the year and may have helped the first basemen out of a slump.
“I had kind of been struggling early in the season,” Bordenkecher said. “Today was just for me start conference, start fresh.”
Last season, ISU lost seven of its first ten games before finishing the year with a 28-23 overall record. The Bengals went 12-6 in conference play, winning eight of the 11 home conference games.
This season, ISU is 3-2 at home, with a split against Utah Valley and taking two out of three from Portland State.
The opening weekend of conference play may have jump-started a team that has historically struggled out of the blocks due to an annual tough non-conference slate of games.
“[The Portland State series] can help my confidence because today is the start of the season,” Bordenkecher said. “We played some tough teams so it was important for us to exaggerate in getting ready for these teams. Overpreparing ourselves just to be ready for what we are getting set to accomplish this season.”
With a head coach in her second season, the Bengals have taken a different approach to continuing the line of success that three regular season conference championships in the last four season has brought to the table.
This season, it is more about power instead of speed.
“It’s a different team the last two years I have been here,” senior Ames said. “We have been predominantly speed and this year we have a lot more power. Learning that when the speed is on the power has to come and when the speed is not on the power still has to come no matter what. I think we are doing a way better job of putting the ball into play.”
The Bengals have one nonconference game left on the schedule when the team hosts Boise State April 26.
“There’s always things to be improved upon,” Ames said. “Defense, offense, nobody is ever perfect.”