Cal Poly spent a weekend at the Worth Invitational going through the growing pains associated with emerging from softball adolescence into adulthood, but that discomfort pales in comparison to the pain senior outfielder Lisa Modglin continues to inflict on all comers.
The Mustangs opened the Worth in brilliant fashion, knocking off No. 8 Stanford and Oklahoma State on Friday. The win against the Cardinal marked the third time in the season's opening month that Cal Poly bested a ranked foe, having previously beaten Washington and Northwestern. Considering those signature wins and a 10-4 record mysteriously didn't garner the team even a single vote in either poll last week, Friday's success seemed like a scream for attention by an overlooked team.
Unfortunately, the rest of the weekend was less kind, leaving any Top 25 aspirations hanging by a tenuous thread. Undone at various times by errors and unsteady pitching, Cal Poly fell to San Diego State and Nevada on Saturday before rallying for a win against Texas Tech on Sunday.
Far less tenuous is Modglin's place as an early front-runner for All-American honors. She went 7-for-15 at the plate over the weekend, collecting two home runs, two doubles and a triple as she raised her season average to .492 and her slugging percentage to a Ruthian 1.034. What's all the more remarkable about Modglin's slugging heroics is that she's not only the team's leadoff hitter, she looks the part at 5-foot-3.
After not hitting a home run in either of her first two seasons, despite playing regularly and hitting .323, Modglin hinted at an untapped power reservoir last season, hitting .343 with 16 doubles, four triples and six home runs. But the real power surge didn't surface until this season, as she already has eight home runs in her first 18 games. For someone who chose her uniform number as a tribute to quintessential small-ball outfielder Brett Butler, the home runs are less the product of a particular offseason goal than the byproduct of an overall work ethic.
"It's not like I directly worked on strength so I could hit home runs -- I'm still a leadoff batter -- but I definitely have worked a lot in the weight room and worked hard with lifting and stuff," Modglin said. "And I guess it's paid off."
A few years ago, that kind of work might have been lost in obscurity for a program that had never had back-to-back winning seasons or been to the NCAA Tournament since joining Division I in 1996. Now it's representative of what's going on in San Luis Obispo.
As a senior, Modglin is one of five players on the roster who predate coach Jenny Condon's arrival three seasons ago after a stint as an assistant at Oregon State. The former Iowa State star wasted little time posting the first back-to-back winning seasons in school history and now has the Mustangs in position to challenge for an NCAA Tournament berth in her third season.
"It's kind of weird, because I did play with our other coach, and it was just different," Modglin said. "It was a little bit more laid back and for fun. And coach came in with a lot more experience, at the Pac-10 level, so she kind of knew how a top team should be run. It's a lot harder and a lot better, so I like it a lot."
Not exactly an ancient in her own right, Condon has surrounded herself with assistants even closer in age to her players than she is. In assistants Claire Sua (UCLA '05), Ani Nyhus (Oregon '05) and volunteer assistant Emily Zaplatosch (UCLA '06), Condon has a staff able to both speak to the players about what it takes to win at the highest level and know what the players are hearing.
"It's really nice, because then you have coaches that can relate to what you've been through," Modglin said. "They graduated, what, like two or three years ago? So they're right out of college and they know exactly what you're going through. A little bit more mental things, you can talk to them about it and they can relate."
A rough day on Saturday may keep Cal Poly off the national stage for a few more weeks or months, but Modglin appears ready to do her part to keep the spotlight warm for one of college softball's most intriguing sleeper teams.
Elsewhere at the Worth
There's no place like home unless you're Northwestern (more on that in a minute).
Cal State Fullerton welcomed nine other teams to town for the well-regarded Worth Invitational, but the Titans weren't exactly hospitable on the field. Coming off a dominant pitching run in Palm Springs that was marred only by a surprising 5-4 loss to Long Island on getaway day, the Titans rolled to four wins on home turf, including a pair of 1-0 wins against Stanford and Oregon State.
The star of the show, and one of the bigger stars of the last two weeks, was pitcher Candice Baker. The senior opened things with a no-hitter against the Cardinal on Friday (she walked five) and closed out the weekend with a two-hit shutout against the Beavers.
Fullerton allowed just one run in winning its first four games in Palm Springs last week, and Baker now has a 1.10 ERA and 105 strikeouts in 83 innings. Dominant enough last year in earning all-conference honors, Baker's early numbers suggest she's ready to be recognized as one of the most dangerous pitchers in the country.
At times during the season-opening Kajikawa Classic in early February, Northwestern looked very much like a team that needed mittens more than mitts when stepping outside in January.
It's amazing what a month in short sleeves can do.
Wrapping up a month spent piling up frequent-flier miles in four consecutive weekend tournaments on the West Coast, the Wildcats were also big winners in Fullerton. Not only did Northwestern finish the weekend unbeaten by beating Oklahoma State on Sunday, snapping a string of good performances marred by disappointing losses on getaway day the last two weekends, it ran its record to 6-2 against the Pac-10 with wins against No. 8 Stanford and No. 13 Oregon State on Saturday.
By jumping into the deep end, Northwestern took a few lumps and sacrificed its early top-five ranking. As a result, the Wildcats may spend March behind Big Ten rival Michigan in the polls, after the Wolverines took a slightly different approach with their young roster by playing in some less-loaded tournament fields.
But after Northwestern freshman Nicole Pauly came up with the big hit to break a scoreless tie in the eighth against Oregon State, giving fellow freshman Lauren Delaney the cushion she needed to win a duel against Brianne McGowan for the second time in eight days, you get the feeling coach Kate Drohan is probably just fine with where her team stands.
Shrinking Middle Class
In what's getting to be a theme, the middle tier of the Pac-10 struggled through a tough weekend.
Oregon State and Stanford faced tough competition at the Worth, with the Cardinal turning in an especially disappointing 2-3 record. There's nothing wrong with losing early-season games against quality teams like Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton or Northwestern, but you would hope a championship-caliber team wouldn't come up empty against all three in the same weekend. The numbers look good in the circle for Missy Pena and the Cardinal are hitting better than .300 as a team, but it's tough to pick out a true quality win -- at least as compared to other top-10 teams -- out of their 16 victories.
Oregon State was more efficient in taking care of Nevada, Oklahoma State and Minnesota, but Kirk Walker's team was whitewashed by a freshman for the second time in eight days against Northwestern's Delaney. It's been beaten to death already in this space, but Delaney has been arguably the nation's most impressive freshman pitcher to date, but it's not a good sign that Oregon State's veteran lineup couldn't make the adjustments necessary to push across even one run against her.
The news was worst for Cal, which scored just four total runs in losing to DePaul, Fresno State and Nebraska in Las Vegas. The Bears could only manage wins against Delaware State and UNLV earlier in the weekend.
The Bears are hitting a respectable .282, and it's hard to single out Katie Vickers and Alex Sutton when the duo has driven in more than a quarter of the team's runs, but it looks like the heart of the order needs to be extraordinary until at least one of Cal's three pitchers emerges as a capable workhorse.
Arizona State, a member of the conference's upper echelon, had its own struggles during what should have been an easy weekend hosting by far the weakest field of the three tournaments the Sun Devils have hosted so far. Of course, everything gets a little more difficult when you play without Katie Burkhart, who didn't pitch in any of the weekend's five games for unknown reasons.
After dropping a game against UC Santa Barbara to open the tournament (Megan Elliott took the loss, allowing nine hits and seven earned runs in seven innings), the Sun Devils had to sweat out a 12-9 win against North Florida in Friday's nightcap.
All things considered, Elliott and little-used third pitcher Mindy Cowles, who often appears as the team's slugging second baseman, held up well after Friday.
For what was a mostly dreary weekend for the Pac-10, Washington did its part to boost conference pride by taking a pair of games from No. 6 LSU.
In the first game, Danielle Lawrie posted one of the best pitching lines seen in the Emerald City since Randy Johnson left town, going all nine innings in the 3-1 overtime win while allowing just one hit and striking out 20. LSU's Emily Turner matched her pitch for pitch for the first eight innings, but staked to a 1-0 lead in the ninth, she surrendered a three-run, walk-off home run to Ashley Charters.
Caitlin Noble couldn't quite match Lawrie's performance when she locked up with Dani Hofer in Sunday's battle of each team's No. 2 pitchers, but Noble held on long enough for Lawrie to come in and pitch three innings of scoreless relief for the save in the 6-3 win.
It wasn't quite Arizona taking on Tennessee, but on a macro level, Washington's success was a nice statement for the Pac-10 against one of the SEC's strongest teams. And on a micro level, it was a good indication that the Huskies do have a shot at providing Lawrie with the kind of offensive support she didn't always have last season.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.