The youngest program at Boise State is on the brink of accomplishing big things- thanks in no small part to its youngest member.
Boise State softball enters the final weekend of the regular season with a one-game lead in the Western Athletic Conference standings. Freshman shortstop Mackenzie Whyte will carry a four-game hitting streak, a steady glove and a calming influence into the showdown with second-place New Mexico State May 6-7, in Las Cruces, N.M.
While Boise State is 30-7 in the nearly 10 weeks since a 2-8 start, the last month has propelled the Broncos into the national conversation and they have been flourishing along with Whyte. After Boise State suffered its first conference loss of the season in the series opener at San Jose State April 1, head coach Erin Thorpe shook up the lineup. The biggest change was moving Whyte from the bottom of the batting order to the three spot.
"She competed in every single at bat," Thorpe said. "She didn't show fear and I felt like that's what we needed at that spot in the lineup."
The move paid dividends almost immediately as Whyte was 3-for-4 with a grand slam on her way to driving in a school-record-tying six runs in the finale against the Spartans, a 12-1 Bronco win.
"When I was batting nine I was just happy to be there," Whyte said. "Hitting number three I started to be a little more aggressive to show I belonged there. I felt I deserved it. I had been working my rear off."
In the 15 games since the move, Whyte is batting .327 with 16 hits, 13 RBI and 11 runs.
Whyte has started every game at shortstop during her first campaign with the Broncos-including becoming the first freshman to start a season opener at the position-but it has not been smooth sailing the whole season.
The Austin, Texas, native managed two hits through the first 14 games of the season as she bounced in and out of the batting order.
Whyte points to the SpringHill Suites Invitational, the Broncos' first home stand March 4-6, as her turning point in the season.
"The previous tournament (Feb. 25-27) at Riverside (Calif.) was my deepest low. Then we came home," Whyte said. "My bat started coming alive, we played well and it was just a good weekend for everybody."
Her weekend was highlighted by a 2-for-3 performance March 5, against Seattle, including her first-career home run, in a 14-1 romp of the Redhawks. The Broncos went 5-0 and were in the midst of what turned out to be a school-record 12-game win streak.
The win streak will be remembered most for the Boise State pitching staff beginning to take shape, including a 41-inning scoreless streak. Equally important was the defense backing that pitching. Whyte was an important cog in the Broncos' strong glove work.
The defense from Whyte does not come as much of a surprise as it is something the coaches were looking forward to this season.
"We knew she could play the position and play it well," Thorpe said. "She has the fundamental skills plus the competitive nature to excel there. You have to want to take control to play shortstop."
Whyte is the first to say playing shortstop was something she strived for.
"I can't tell you how much I wanted it," Whyte said. "I would have played anywhere else on the field, but I wanted shortstop."
She has remained up to the task in conference play. Boise State leads the WAC in assists during conference games as the left side combination of Kelly Sweeney and Whyte rank first and second in assists, respectively.
The accolades and rankings are not enough for someone who Thorpe calls highly motivated to surpass even her own lofty expectations.
"I feel like defensively I'm not playing as well as I usually do. Coach tells me it's probably freshman jitters-and it might be-but it's just not there like it always is," Whyte said. "I know it will come."
When it does come, the Broncos will have something special. Whyte has committed just eight errors on the year at one of the busiest defensive positions on the field. She holds a .946 fielding percentage, nearly 60 percentage points better than the Broncos' combined fielding percentage at shortstop through the first two years of the program.
With defense a strength and her batting average on a steady climb, Whyte was left with one important facet of shortstop to improve-leadership.
"Shortstop is supposed to be a leader on the field," Whyte said. "Early on I was timid. I was comfortable with the girls, but I was intimidated to say anything. As the games went on and as I started hitting, I felt more comfortable voicing my opinion. I felt more comfortable trying to calm the team or pick them up."
Thorpe said the stoic Whyte's calming influence shined through in the Broncos' sweep of Hawai'i.
"She can really be a pillar for us because she doesn't get nervous, and she's more shocked when she loses." Thorpe said. "A lot of times athletes can get caught up in the name on the front of the jersey. She doesn't do that"
Boise State became the first team to sweep the Rainbow Wahine on the islands since 2005 and put itself in position to contend for the regular-season crown.
After an even more historic sweep of Fresno State to finish a 14-0 home record at Mountain Cove Softball Field, the Broncos are in the driver's seat. Whyte scored the tying run and assisted on the final out in the second game of the series, clinching the Broncos their first series win against the Bulldogs. She picked up a hit in each of the games as Boise State went on to become the first school to sweep a season series from Fresno State since it joined the WAC in 1993.
As the wins pile up, the confidence continues to build in each of the Broncos, but it may be most noticeable on the field from Whyte.
"Coach (Thorpe) always tells me I need to keep talking," Whyte said. "I don't talk a lot. I tend to lead by example, but talking is important and I'm starting to pick it up."
Whyte and the Broncos are two more weeks of strong play away from having a lot to talk about.