No. 24 San Diego State softball season preview

Mac Barbara celebrates the final out in a 2-1 against Minnesota last March. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

As the scoreboard shows, Makena Brocki makes the final out in SDSU’s 2-1 win over Minnesota last March. The Aztecs welcome the Gophers to town on Friday. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)
SDSU wins 2-1

As Aztec Nation reveled in the high of Men’s Basketball run to the Final Four, SDSU softball carried the mantle of that momentum with a postseason of excellence that captured the imagination of the city.

Their buzz saw through the Los Angeles Regional, where they outscored the opposition 19-3 in three resounding victories, earned SDSU its first-ever trip to a Super Regional. The Aztecs’ season ended one game short of the Women’s College World Series, but they earned the respect of the nation, finishing No. 18/No. 19 in the final polls.

With much of the core returning, plus an influx of veteran transfers and promising freshmen, 2024 puts SDSU in an unfamiliar place. They enter the year with high, outside expectations. Anything short of another trip to a Super Regional will be a letdown.

The Aztecs are ranked in three preseason polls, including landing at No. 24 in the coaches poll, and are one spot out of ESPN’s rankings. 2009 (25th) and 2002 (23rd) are the only other times in program history SDSU entered a season ranked.

Head coach Stacey Nuveman Deniz talks with Cali Decker (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

San Diego State was also picked to win the Mountain West this year. Junior UTIL Mac Barbara was named the Preseason Player of the Year, and Senior RHP Allie Light earned Preseason Pitcher of the Year recognition.

They were joined on the all-conference team by juniors Cali Decker (UTIL) and Bella Espinoza (OF). Amazingly, after earning first-team all-conference in 2023, senior INF Makena Brocki did not earn preseason honors.

“We’re focusing on us,” head coach Stacey Nuveman Deniz said on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast. “We have a really tough schedule (the) first five weeks. There’s no gimmes. There’s no weekend that doesn’t have multiple Top 25 teams. Literally every weekend, we’re facing ranked teams. Our challenge is how do we keep our heads on when we face some adversity?”

Offense

SDSU softball is everything Aztec fans want the money-making sports on campus to be. They are good at every aspect of the game and are exciting and entertaining to watch. In 2023, the Aztecs ranked 31st in the country in batting average (.306), 48th in on-base percentage (.379), 49th in scoring (5.2 runs per game), 67th in slugging percentage (.438), and 66th in stolen bases (1.37 per game).

There is every reason to believe SDSU’s offense will be even more explosive in 2024. The core of the Aztecs’ production last year came from juniors and sophomores. Among the athletes with at least 80 at-bats, MW Tournament MVP Jillian Celis is the only departure. She graduated and now plays at Washington.

Bella Espinoza (3) is congratulated after scoring a run. Espinoza was named to the Mountain West preseason all-conference team. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

Nuveman Deniz added Virginia transfer INF Katie Golberg (.274, 24 RBI in 2023), UCLA transfer UTIL Alyssa Garcia (.292, 49 RBI in 142 career games), Dartmouth transfer INF Kate Farren (.314, 21 RBI in 2023), UCF transfer INF Micaela Macario (.308, 12 RBI in 2023), and Washington transfer UTIL Angie Yellen (.290, 9 RBI in 2022) to an already potent offense.

Last year, Barbara (1st), Decker (2nd), Espinoza (2nd), and Brocki (1st) all made the all-conference team for their prowess at the plate. If they can continue growing their games and the new additions on the roster also make strides, there will be no holes in SDSU’s lineup.

“There’s going to be a lot of changes this year, good or bad,” Barbara said during the upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast when asked about the depth of the team. “At the same time, our coaches are doing it for the good of our team. … It’s all about accepting who you are and what your role is … That’s what’s going to make a team, a team. … Everyone’s going to get their opportunity. Everyone’s going to get their chance. It’s just about how they embrace it, how they accept it.”

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Pitching

As good as SDSU is at the plate, they excel just as much on the mound. Nationally, they ranked 65th in ERA (2.74) and tied for 35th in shutouts (12). On her way to the 2023 Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Award, Light recorded a 1.37 ERA in conference play. She only gave up 12 earned runs in 61.1 innings pitched against MW opponents. Overall, she put up a 2.44 ERA, a 0.97 WHIP, struck out 106, and gave up 36 earned runs in 132.2 innings of work. Light also recorded a school-record seven saves last year.

Dee Dee Hernandez on the mound. Her role this season could include more time as a starter. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

The Aztecs need to replace Sarah Lehman’s and Dani Hernandez’ combined 33 starts. Senior Cassidy West started 17 games in two seasons for Fresno State before transferring to SDSU last year and starting four games. Junior Dee Dee Hernandez has started nine contests in two seasons on The Mesa, including a pair in her 36 appearances last season. As upperclassmen, they should be able to handle a larger role.

Cece Cellura and Christal Lopez round out the pitchers on the roster. Both are freshmen and came to SDSU as part of the Class of 2022. Nuveman Deniz plans to utilize her staff according to the opponent they face. How that shakes out is one of the top storylines of the season.

Filling out the rotation behind Light is the only real question mark for the Aztecs. Player development is key in sports. The quality of Nuveman Deniz and her staff’s work will be apparent next week. SDSU opens its season on Thursday at home against No. 3 Stanford (5 pm), followed by contests against Minnesota on Friday (5:30 pm) and a doubleheader on Saturday against No. 25 Kentucky (4:30 pm) and UCSB (7 pm).

“How I look at leading the pitching staff is bluntly emphasizing that we’re all going to contribute,” Light said on the same podcast episode. “That for us to make it to where we want to be, all of us got to put up shutdown innings. All of us have to contribute, and I’m only as good as the girl next to me. As far as me, Dee Dee, Cass, and some of the freshmen that we brought in, it’s just knowing it’s going to take all of us doing our part to get where we want to be.”

Defense

Among the 27 runs scored by both teams in the Super Regional, nine were unearned. If the Aztecs are to reach their lofty goals, they will need to be elite defensively. Their .971 fielding percentage ranked 51st in the nation a year ago, but they committed five errors in three games against the Utes. Moving into the top 25 defensively during the year this season could translate to excellence in the postseason.

SDSU celebrates a win over Minnesota. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

Cellis played short for the Red and Black in 2023. With her departure, expect to see Goldberg hold down the spot. She played in 175 games for Virginia with the vast majority of that coming as the starting shortstop. She had a .960+ fielding percentage in each of the past two seasons. Farren also played the position with Dartmouth and boasts a career .941 fielding percentage.

Garcia’s primary position at UCLA was catcher, which is also where Decker competes at. The duo should form an elite defensive catching tandem. Macey Keester returns to roam center field, and Brocki looks to reprise her role at second base. SDSU’s defense should be strong up the middle.

“My identity as a pitcher is that I am very unique in terms of what I throw and my approach,” Light explained. “Where my success comes from is absolutely my defense. I know there’s no way I would be able to accomplish (success on the field) without the defense that I had behind me. I don’t necessarily fit the stereotype of most DI pitchers at this level. I don’t throw hard. I don’t have a rise ball. … I like to keep the ball down and let my defense work for me.”

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