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UNM enters conference play hot

Lobos return home with seven-game winning streak

The road-hardened UNM softball team's longest home stretch of the season begin this weekend with doubleheaders against the University of Utah Friday and Brigham Young University Saturday.

The Lobos (27-13) go into Mountain West Conference play having won 15 of their last 16 games and seven in a row, but they have played only eight games at home all season. In addition, right fielder Krissy Keene and freshman pitcher Amy Dumas - who has won 11 straight contests - were named player and pitcher of the week in the Mountain West last week to add fire to UNM's winning streak. Keene went 11-for-20 to earn the honor for the first time this season.

Head coach Susan Craig said going into conference play on a roll is a good thing for the team.

"We look at it as two separate seasons," Craig said. "The first two months is our chance to make our name and reputation around the country that we can play with and beat top 10 programs. The conference is special, and we want to take one game at a time and do as well as we can, because we don't want to lose that momentum."

Early in the season, Craig seemed worried about the team's offensive production as the Lobos were blanked in seven games to keep their record at a 12-12 mark. But in the last 16 games, the offense has come back strong. The team has posted a conference-high 65 extra base hits, compared to its opponents' 39.

Craig said the team's offensive philosophy has not changed.

"I don't think it's a matter of changing anything you do," Craig said. "When we struggled early in the season, we went back to basics and tried to revisit the mental side of hitting. We have four people who have finally hit a groove and two or three that are hitting off-and-on. When you're not in a groove and you're playing good competition, it's hard to get your feet on the ground."

The Lobos also have picked it up on defense, aided, in part, by strong pitching. In addition to Dumas, Kathy Moore and Haley Punter have both pitched well as of late. UNM has shut out 11 opponents - including six of its last 10 - and Craig said it all begins with pitching.

"Amy has been the one with the most wins because she's the most consistent," Craig said. "She gets a lot of ground balls, and we play good defense. Both Hailey and Kathy have pitched well at certain times but are not consistent. It's a luxury that we have three pitchers that have worked hard and that don't have egos."

In facing Utah (18-15), the Lobos have a chance to reverse a recent trend that has seen the Utes win four of the last five games over UNM, going back to last year's conference championship. The Lobos also have a chance to jump out in front of the Utes in conference play. Utah was picked in the offseason by the Mountain West coaches to win the conference.

"Utah is a very good team and their record is over .500, but they have played a good schedule," Craig said. "They're a team that can't be held down for a long time - not a team you can relax against. Defensively, they're struggling. They have a shortstop that's making more mistakes than they expected."

With the Mountain West Tournament being held May 10-12 at Lobo Field, Craig said doing well in conference play is imperative to take full advantage of the home field edge and to possibly earn a first-round bye in the tournament.

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UNM earned the right to host the tournament this year by finishing second to Utah last year. The top team of the previous year is rewarded by having the conference championship in its home city, but because Utah has won the tournament two years in a row and the conference won't allow a team to host it two years straight, the tournament will be played in Albuquerque.

"We don't pick an area like Las Vegas as the center for the championship," Craig said. "But in the future, if we have great crowds and raise a lot of money for the conference, there's a possibility that the athletic directors could vote to have it in one city every year. Albuquerque would be a great city to host it in."

Now that the men's and women's basketball seasons are officially over, Craig said she hopes to see some fans of the basketball programs in the stands in the coming weeks.

"We've been pleased with the reception we've had," Craig said. "Our biggest problem is getting the word out. Our second is weather. Plenty of times, you have to be motivated to watch baseball or softball with 30 mile-per-hour winds blowing, so we hope we have decent weather this weekend and hope the stands will be packed."

Both doubleheaders begin at 1 p.m. at Lobo Field, and admission is free for UNM students. Dumas will be on the mound for the final game on Friday.

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