The Cougars are rightly hungry to get to work in 2017, with nine returning starters and just two lettermen having graduated from last year’s 36-21 team. BYU was 12-3 in the West Coast Conference and made the NCAA Tournament, heading home after losses to Missouri and Nebraska.
The team’s top three hitters are back – senior Ashley Thompson (.400, 44 runs and 12 stolen bases), senior Lauren Bell (.373, WCC defensive player of the year at shortstop) and junior Alexa Strid (.328, all WCC first team). And sitting back ready to drive home all those baserunners is sophomore catcher Libby Sugg, whose dynamite freshman year included team-high totals of 18 home runs and 58 RBI.
More optimism for a postseason run comes from the pitching prowess of senior McKenna Bull, who was 27-13 last year with a solid 2.63 ERA. The WCC pitcher of the year had 10 shutouts. Head coach Gordon Eakin is entering his 15th year at BYU and has been named his conference’s coach of the year seven times.
NOTE: There are four pitchers on the roster looking to take some of the burden off McKenna Bull, as well as position themselves to take over after this year. Two of those pitchers are sisters – junior Arianna Paulson and freshman Arissa Paulson.
The Tigers won 58 games last year, churning into the Women’s College World Series final against Oklahoma and just coming up short, losing the deciding Game 3 by a 2-1 score. Auburn will tackle 2017 with a young team, featuring just four seniors and only one with significant experience, but six starters are back. Head coach Clint Myers is entering his fourth year at Auburn; he’s averaging 52 victories per season.
That key senior, infielder Kasey Cooper, is a 5-foot-4 force of nature – she hit .422 with 21 home runs and 83 RBI, earning the Southeast Conference and ESPNw player of the year awards. Barring injury, she should end up in the NCAA top 25 for career home runs. Junior outfielder Victoria Draper will also be leaned upon after starting 69 games and hitting .325 last year.
There’s plenty of talent in the circle as junior pitcher Kaylee Carlson is back after going 19-2 last year with a 2.36 ERA; also prepared to knock out innings is sophomore Makayla Martin, who was 15-4 last year, posting a 1.57 ERA and holding hitters to a .215 batting average.
NOTE: Auburn signed eight players in its November recruiting class, a group ranked No. 2 overall in the nation. Four players were stalwarts in the Birmingham Bolts club program in Alabama; two others played for the OC Batbusters in southern California.
Five top-flight NCAA D-I fastpitch teams, including 2016 champion Oklahoma and runner-up Auburn, will launch their 2017 campaigns at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge, with three games slated for Thursday, Feb. 9, airing on ESPNU and ESPN3.
Here’s the schedule for the TV games, which are held at the newly remodeled Nancy Almaraz Stadium (all times EST; home team listed second):
Nebraska vs. BYU, 11 a.m. (ESPN3)
Auburn vs. Oklahoma, 2 p.m. (ESPNU)
Washington vs. Auburn, 8 p.m. (ESPN3)
(Note: the BYU-Oklahoma game at 5 p.m. ET will not be televised)
Games will also be available through WatchESPN, accessible on computers, smartphones, tablets and connected devices to fans who receive their video subscription from an affiliated provider.
The Auburn-Oklahoma game marks what may be an unprecedented moment in NCAA softball, where the two teams that met for the Women’s College World Series title play each other to start the following season. The Sooners topped the Tigers in the three-game series, 2-1, scoring two runs in the first inning of Game 3 and holding on for a 2-1 victory.
“This unique event features a dream field of teams in a facility and community that will make the fans and players feel special,” said David King, CEO of Triple Crown Sports. “People get to experience the sun, the beach and the opportunity to enjoy authentic Mexico with the best softball teams going. What could be better?”
Session 1 of the Puerto Vallarta Challenge continues with three games on Feb. 10 and three more on Feb. 11.
The Puerto Vallarta College Challenge is the only D-I fastpitch event to be held outside the United States. Teams and their fans will experience a fully renovated ballpark with new lights; work on the stadium (which sits barely ¼ a mile from the beach) was accomplished through a partnership with the city of Puerto Vallarta and Triple Crown Sports.
The inaugural Puerto Vallarta College Challenge was held in 2015, featuring the teams from BYU, Nevada, Northern Colorado and Southern Illinois. Those were the first fastpitch games in NCAA history played outside the United States.
Session 2 of the 2017 Puerto Vallarta College Challenge will be held Feb. 16-19, with another accomplished group of teams: Cal-State Fullerton, Florida Gulf Coast, Fresno State, Mississippi State and Texas Tech.
About Triple Crown Sports
Based in Fort Collins, CO., Triple Crown Sports has been producing events in youth athletics and the college ranks for more than 30 years. TCS runs both the preseason and postseason WNIT basketball events and produces the men’s and women’s Cancun Challenge tournaments in November, which have been recognized by Sports Illustrated as a top-5 destination tournament for D-I basketball programs. Triple Crown is also rolling out new “WNIT” concepts in D-I softball and volleyball, beginning in 2017. TCS youth fastpitch tournaments (including the 1,000-team Sparkler/Fireworks event) draw the nation’s finest club programs, and hundreds of college coaches attend TCS events for recruiting purposes.