From underdog to conference leader: Aggie softball aims to stay on top

#15 Paxton Provost

LOGAN – There is a target on the Utah State softball team. The rest of the Mountain West is waiting to take them down, or is just hoping someone else does. That’s something new for this group of Aggies.

Usually it is a team like Fresno State or San Diego State in that position, but for the first time in more than two decades, Utah State is leading its conference.

“They were the ones that had won the titles the last few years,” head coach Steve Johnson said of the Bulldogs and Aztecs. “Now it’s flipped, because we are two games up with three series left to play. There is a mathematical way we can win it now. Now we’re the hunted.”

With just three series left in the 2017 season, USU has a 28-10 overall record and leads the Mountain West standings by more than two games. In its final three conference series, the Aggies will play three home games against New Mexico this weekend, a three-game series at home against San Diego State next weekend and then three road games at San Jose State – all with its first Mountain West Conference championship and a trip to Regionals on the line.

Even with the lead more than halfway through the conference season, senior infielder Victoria Saucedo doesn’t think the other conference teams expect much out of USU.

“I think they think we’re getting lucky,” she said. “I really do. They think, ‘Oh they are just playing them, they haven’t played us yet,’ and then when we play them they are on their heels, which is actually nice. We’ve always been the underdog, and we’re going to continue being the underdog.”

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Johnson said those that really know softball know his team isn’t just lucky.

“If they’ve watched us they see a very fundamentally sound team,” he said. “Our pitching, our defense, our offense, we’re ranked nationally, so I think you can’t say we’re not executing things or we’re just getting every lucky break. We didn’t win Fresno by an error or a lucky hit, I mean, they were home runs. That’s not on a lucky break, that’s a good swing.”

The success has brought with it a type of pressure the team isn’t used to: the pressure of staying on top. Senior infielder Paxton Provost said in her four years at USU, she hasn’t experienced anything like it until now, but she also said it is a type of pressure her team can thrive under.

“Even when the preseason polls came out, we came in fourth,” she said. “So we were still underdogs. No one knew what we were capable of except for us. I think buying into the program is huge, and that is what we are able to do. So feeling this pressure is a good thing.”

Her head coach agreed.

“They created that pressure by winning the games,” Johnson said. “So it’s not really pressure at all, it’s what we wanted. They’ve really executed well in it, and now they flip roles.”

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In addition to winning a conference championship, a trip to the postseason would also be new. Even though no player on the team knows what that is like, the coaches, through experiences with former schools, do. The team may have to rely on their coach’s experience to help get through these last few series.

“We’ve talked about the pressure, and I think that’s an important thing for us to do, because as a coaching staff, we’ve all been here before,” Johnson said. “We know what the postseason is about. We know what it takes to get there. I feel like if we didn’t talk about (the players) would. If they’re talking about it, they don’t know what it is, so they might be talking about the wrong things.”

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