An eye-catching list of Power Five softball programs and a slew of mid-major standouts will cross the border next year, as tournament officials for the fourth Puerto Vallarta College Challenge have announced the field for the event’s two sessions, Feb. 7-10 and Feb. 14-17, 2019.
Produced by Triple Crown Sports, the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge is played at the refurbished Nancy Almaraz Stadium and designed to bring high-achieving softball teams into an intimate setting for a unique warm-weather kickoff for the spring season.
Session 1 (Feb. 7-10)
Baylor (Big 12)
BYU (Mountain West)
Liberty (Big South)
Notre Dame (ACC)
North Carolina (ACC)
South Carolina (SEC)
Session 2, (Feb. 14-17)
Mississippi State (SEC)
North Dakota State (Summit League)
Northern Colorado (Big Sky)
Sacramento State (Big Sky)
Southern Illinois (Missouri Valley)
UCF (American Athletic)
Here’s the day-by-day game schedule (Puerto Vallarta is in the USA’s Central Time Zone):
Thursday, February 7
BYU vs South Carolina, 10 a.m. CT
Baylor vs South Carolina, 12:30 p.m. CT
Baylor vs BYU, 3 p.m. CT
Notre Dame vs Duke, 8:30 p.m. CT
Friday, February 8
Liberty vs BYU, 10 a.m. CT
Liberty vs Notre Dame, 12:30 p.m. CT
North Carolina vs Baylor, 3 p.m. CT
South Carolina vs Duke, 6 p.m. CT
North Carolina vs Washington, 8:30 p.m. CT
Saturday, February 9
South Carolina vs Notre Dame, 10 a.m. CT
BYU vs North Carolina, 12:30 p.m. CT
Duke vs Liberty, 3 p.m. CT
Notre Dame vs Washington, 6 p.m. CT
Duke vs Washington, 8:30 p.m. CT
Sunday, February 10
South Carolina vs North Carolina, 9 a.m. CT
Baylor vs Liberty, 12 p.m. CT
Washington vs Liberty, 3 p.m. CT
Washington vs Baylor, 6 p.m. CT
Thursday, February 14
Mississippi State vs Southern Illinois, 10 a.m. CT
North Dakota State vs Northern Colorado, 12:30 p.m. CT
North Dakota State vs Arkansas, 3 p.m. CT
Mississippi State vs Washington, 6 p.m. CT
Arkansas vs Washington, 8:30 p.m. CT
Friday, February 15
Sacramento State vs Mississippi State, 10 a.m. CT
Northern Colorado vs Southern Illinois, 12:30 p.m. CT
Northern Colorado vs Arkansas, 3 p.m. CT
Washington vs UCF, 6 p.m. CT
Washington vs North Dakota State, 8:30 p.m. CT
Saturday, February 16
UCF vs Northern Colorado, 10 a.m. CT
UCF vs Mississippi State, 12:30 p.m. CT
Arkansas vs Sacramento State, 3 p.m. CT
Southern Illinois vs Sacramento State, 6 p.m. CT
Southern Illinois vs North Dakota State, 8:30 p.m. CT
Sunday, February 17
Sacramento State vs UCF, 11 a.m. CT
Session 1 Teams
2018 record: 38-18 (reached NCAA Regionals)
The Bears saw a terrific season end on frustrating terms, with a controversial umpire call and a six-hour rain delay sidelining the team at Regionals. Kyla Walker is back for her senior year after hitting .433 in the spring, the second-highest batting average in program history. There’s also reason to be excited by the pitching staff, led by senior Gia Rodoni, who was 23-12 last year with 268 strikeouts. Head coach Glenn Moore has topped 850 wins in his 18 seasons at Baylor and guided the program to the Women’s College World Series on four occasions.
2018 record: 36-22 (reached NCAA Regionals)
The Cougars remain a consistent force in the sport, winning their 10th straight conference title and reaching the NCAA Regionals for the 14th consecutive season. The offense gets the benefit of one more year with Libby Sugg, who hit a monsterous .414 last year with an on-base percentage of .500; sophomore Bridget Fleener hit. 378 as a freshman, and junior Rylee Jensen was a super-productive outfielder in hitting .329 with 57 runs scored. Junior pitcher Kerisa Viramontes is shaping up to be a reliable force in the circle, as she was 19-6 last year with a 2.11 ERA.
2018 record: 29-27 (lost in ACC Tournament)
The Blue Devils, believe it or not, didn’t even have a softball program until this spring, so their inaugural campaign impressed by any measure. Leading hitter Raine Wilson is back; the junior hit .371 and had 23 extra-base hits last year. Duke has some options at pitcher as well, as sophomore Amelia Wiercioch had a sub-2.00 ERA and won 11 games and classmate Peyton St. George came through with eight wins and an ERA of 1.79. Head coach Marissa Young was a three-time All-America selection as a pitcher at the University of Michigan and was named the 2002 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and 2003 Big Ten Player of the Year.
2018 record: 49-14 (reached NCAA Regionals)
The Flames, coached by Olympic champion and one of the sport’s all-time greats in Dot Richardson, took it up a notch last season by reaching an NCAA Regional Final for the first time, and topping a nationally ranked team for the first time since 2007. Senior pitcher Julia DiMartino was a stunning 29-8 last year with a 1.72 ERA and 230 strikeouts in 240.2 innings pitched. The offense is primed by twin sisters Amber and Autumn Bishop, who are entering their junior year and both hit .365 as sophomores. Amber Bishop had 21 doubles and 11 home runs, while Autumn Bishop added 25 doubles and eight home runs.
2018 record: 30-26 (lost in ACC Tournament)
The Tar Heels lost just two seniors from last year and have a real shot at bettering their third-place finish in the ACC. Junior pitcher Brittany Pickett is an obvious asset; she was 28-12 last year with a 2.29 ERA and 216 Ks in 299.2 innings. North Carolina puts an emphasis on base stealing, and senior Leah Murray is back after stealing 34 bases, which put her in the top 20 nationally. Texas Tech transfer Kiani Ramsey had a terrific debut season, leading the team with a .374 batting average and adding 17 stolen bases. The Tar Heels are coached by Donna J. Papa, who has run the program for 33 years and ranks eighth all-time in Division I victories
2018 record: 34-23 (reached NCAA Regionals)
The Fighting Irish were a bit inconsistent last year, but the roster had enough juice to beat eventual national champion Florida State in an ACC game in late April. Senior outfielder Ali Wester hit .365 last year and added 15 stolen bases; sophomore Abby Sweet had a strong debut season as she hit .333 with team-high totals of 38 runs, 13 doubles and 22 HBPs. Sophomore pitcher Alexis Holloway looked every bit the star after a lauded high school career, as she went 22-15 with a 2.55 ERA and 179 strikeouts in 228 innings. Head coach Deanna Gumpf has 702 victories in her 17 seasons at Notre Dame.
2018 record: 49-17 (lost to Arizona State in NCAA Super Regionals)
The Gamecocks were picked last preseason to finish 12th in the powerful SEC, but they shocked the masses by finishing third. The program is certainly set in the circle as all three primary pitchers return: Cayla Drotar (21-7, 2.25 ERA), Kelsey Oh (14-5, 1.92 ERA, 135 Ks in 138.2 IP) and Dixie Raley (14-5, 2.09 ERA). South Carolina added a key transfer late in the summer cycle in sophomore Kate Prebble; she played at Gardner Webb and was the Big South Player of the Year after notching 23 home runs and 71 RBI. Mackenzie Boesel hit .360 as a sophomore with 53 runs, 47 RBI and 29 extra-base hits; Drotar also hit .268 and slugged 10 home runs.
2018 record: 52-10 (reached WCWS, lost to Florida State in the NCAA Championship Series)
The Huskies find Puerto Vallarta so nice, they’ll play in it twice in 2019 – Washington is in both the Feb. 7-10 and Feb. 14-17 sessions. The Huskies also have good memories from the Puerto Vallarta event in 2017, when they beat then-No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 Auburn. Washington’s 2018 season saw it hold the No. 1 ranking for extended periods and should be tough again with senior pitcher Taran Alvelo (23-5, 1.30 ERA, 242 Ks in 188 innings) and Australian sophomore Gabbie Plain (22-5, 1.01 ERA, 181 Ks in 166.1 innings). Junior second baseman Sis Bates was a first-team all-American and Pac-12 defensive player of the year; she hit .389 last year.
Session 2 Teams
2018 record: 42-17 (lost to Oklahoma in NCAA Super Regionals)
The Razorbacks reached No. 13 in the national rankings and earned a spot in a Super Regional for the first time in program history. Providing essential punch in the circle is sophomore Mary Haff, a finalist for NFCA freshman of the year who was 29-7 with a 1.51 ERA and 249 Ks in 213.1 innings. Hannah McEwen also had a dynamite start to her college run, hitting .339 and adding a team-high 45 runs, 12 home runs and 57 RBI. Head coach Courtney Deifel enters her fourth year at the helm; the program cut more than four runs off its combined ERA between years 1 and 2 of her run at Arkansas. She was an all-American catcher at California, winners of the 2002 NCAA title.
2018 record: 34-22 (lost in American Athletic Conference Tournament)
The Knights were outhit by opponents last year (.264 to .257), but solid pitching in the shape of a 2.55 staff ERA helped make up the difference. Alea White was strong in the circle as a sophomore, going 25-15 with a 2.34 ERA and 175 Ks in 266.2 innings. The team’s two leading hitters from last season are also back – Denali Schappacher hit .340 and scored 30 runs, while Cassady Brewer hit .338 with an on-base percentage of .491. This is an interesting moment for the program; Renee Luers-Gillispie coached the team from its start in 2000, but is leaving after 18 years to run the show at Iowa. The new head coach is Cindy Ball, who led the way at Boise State the past four years.
2018 record: 38-23 (reached NCAA Regionals)
The Bulldogs are making their way in the brutal SEC, winning a tournament game last year for the first time since 2005. The first order of business is identifying go-to pitching options, as returners Candace Denis and Emily Williams combined for just 108 innings last season. The offense is less of a mystery, as sophomore Mia Davidson set a program record with 19 home runs in her first year; she added 50 runs, 48 RBI and hit .370. Senior outfielder Kat Moore hit a solid .344 in 2018, and Emily Heimberger hit .332 and stole 17 bases. Head coach Vann Stuedeman added JUCO standout Christian Quinn (.403, 28 SB) from Florida Southwestern State College.
NORTH DAKOTA STATE
2018 record: 34-19 (reached NCAA Regionals)
The Bison have become the premier team in the Summit League, winning nine of the past 10 league tournaments to become a fixture in the NCAA playoffs, and they had the tools to beat No. 10 LSU, 1-0, in March. The most experienced pitcher coming back is senior KK Leddy, who threw 114 innings last year and won seven games. Senior Zoe Stavrou did terrific work last year, hitting .314, and there’s some real punch in the lineup with senior Vanessa Anderson (team-best eight home runs and 31 RBI). The roster got some extra attention in the offseason with the addition of transfers Cara Beatty (Iowa) and Sam Koehn (Marshall), both of whom have three years of eligibility remaining.
2018 record: 31-20 (reached NCAA Regionals)
The Hornets have reason to be optimistic, as last season marked its first appearance in the NCAA postseason since 2008 after claiming the Big Sky title for the first time. Thanks to her power and consistency, junior Suzy Brookshire is an attention-getter, as she hit 18 home runs last year with 51 RBI, with a batting average of .371 and an OBP of .461. Nene Alas, now a senior, came through by hitting .343 and scoring 32 runs with 11 stolen bases. Senior pitcher Savannah Corr is in line for a larger role after winning seven games and throwing 106.2 innings, and the team will likely lean on New Mexico transfer Jensen Main, who won eight games and threw 162.2 innings last spring.
2018 record: 31-22 (lost in Missouri Valley Tournament)
The Salukis are coached by Kerri Blaylock, who has led the program for 18 years (just two losing seasons) and won more than 650 games. Junior Maddy Vermejan improved notably last season, hitting .346 and posting a .474 OBP with 38 runs scored. Sophomore Jenny Jansen hit .329 as a freshman, and junior Katelyn Massa did real damage in the batting order, batting .310 with 11 home runs and 48 RBI (and a .431 OBP). Pitching ace Brianna Jones will return for her senior year – she was 26-8 last season with a 2.08 ERA and 211 Ks in 232.1 innings pitched. D-II transfer pitcher Claire Miller is on the roster now; she threw 195 innings last year with a 1.97 ERA.
About the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge
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.
As word spread about this unique softball setting, Triple Crown Sports and city officials at Puerto Vallarta agreed in to pool resources and improve almost every aspect of Nancy Almaraz Stadium, site of the event. While the tournament was not held in 2016, there was enough time to complete the work on the stadium, as well as contact more D-1 fastpitch programs to build a dynamic 10-team field for 2017.
With its February placement, the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge offers programs a warm-weather setting to help launch their spring schedules, while also giving fans a chance to follow their favorite teams while enjoying a memorable oceanside resort retreat and vacation.
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 35 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. TCS 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.