The CSU softball team is set to open up Mountain West Conference play tonight as they face the Runninâ€™ Rebels of UNLV at 7 p.m.
Entering their 11th season as part of the MWC, the Rams (23-11) havenâ€™t won a conference championship in six years, when the 2004 team went 40 14.
In fact, it was in 2004 that the Rams last fared better than .500 in conference play, a trend that the 2010 Rams are determined to break.
â€œI think conference carries a lot more weight,â€ said hurler Kelli Eubanks, who leads the pitching staff in nearly every statistical category. â€œBut as far as our play, I think we are going to continue to bring our â€˜Ramâ€™ brand to the field every day.â€
The Rams enter tonightâ€™s game riding a hot streak that includes 22 victories over their past 29 games, this coming after the team stumbled to a 1-4 start in early February. Senior Rebecca Penland likes the Ramsâ€™ chances of continuing their strong play.
â€œWe mesh well and have one common goal,â€ Penland said. â€œWe all trust each other and believe in each other more than we ever had in the four years that Iâ€™ve been here. We can go really far.â€
The Runninâ€™ Rebels (23-14) are a formidable opponent, returning 17 players from last yearâ€™s squad that beat the Rams in two out of three meetings.
UNLV was home to four all-conference players in 2009, and CSU head coach Mary Yori said she is preparing to face an offensively experienced club tonight.
â€œ(UNLV) has some strong hitters,â€ Yori said. â€œA very veteran team with a bunch of juniors and seniors. They are strong in their order and hit for a bunch of power.â€
After tonight, the Rams will continue west as they battle San Diego State on Saturday and Sunday. The Aztecs, who finished second in the MWC last year behind only BYU, are known for exceptional pitching and a knack for winning close ball games.
â€œWhenever you play San Diego State, you know that you are going to have to work hard to manufacture some runs,â€ Yori said. â€œThey have traditionally had one of the better teams in the Mountain West.â€
Over their past 15 games, the Aztecs have shut out their opponents eight times, and have allowed more than two runs in just four of those contests.
The Rams will be challenged by the conferenceâ€™s premiere pitcher in Samantha Beasley, who leads the Aztecs with a razor sharp 0.79 ERA, to go along with 17 wins and 217 strikeouts.
â€œSheâ€™s got about twice as many strikeouts as innings so theoretically sheâ€™s striking out about two batters an inning,â€ Yori said. â€œSheâ€™s going to pose some problems for us. You just have to keep it to a close game. Itâ€™s hard to come from behind with her on the mound.â€
The Saturday and Sunday games in San Diego are scheduled for 7 p.m. and 2 p.m., respectively.
_Softball Beat Reporter Joel Hafnor can be reached at email@example.com.