Fa Leilua connected on a pair of homers and drove in five as Mississippi State broke a 5-5 tie with three runs in the sixth to top Sacramento State, 8-5, at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge.
Leilua's first long ball came in the third inning as she drove a pitch deep to left for a three-run blast to tie the game. Her second shot came in the sixth after the Bulldogs (5-3) took a 6-5 lead one batter earlier.
Sydney Rasmussen connected on a homer in the sixth for Sacramento State (3-3) that briefly tied the score at 5-5. Mo Spieth added a two-run single in the third for the Hornets as part of a four-run frame.
Grace Fagan improved to 2-1 in the circle with 4.1 solid innings of relief for Mississippi State.
In the nightcap of day one, #5-ranked Washington scored two runs in the seventh to stun #11-ranked Arkansas, 3-2, at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge.
Trailing 2-1 and down to its final three outs, Washington (6-1) started its rally with a single by Amirah Milloy. With Milloy on second and one out, Sis Bates doubled off the fence in right to tie the game. Four pitches later, Morganne Flores singled to left, scoring Bates with the game-winning run to give the Huskies the victory.
Both teams scored in the second, with Arkansas (6-1) plating both of its runs in the frame. Hanna McEwen's RBI single put the first run of the game on the board, and Danie Gibson followed with an RBI ground out. In the bottom of the inning, Milloy's RBI fielder's choice allowed Taryn Atlee to score.
Taran Alvelo (3-1) earned the win for UW, while Mary Haff took the hard-luck loss for Arkansas. Both pitchers went the distance for their teams.
After a solid 4-1 showing in Session 1, No. 5 Washington came ready to play softball to begin its campaign through Session 2. Despite giving up a run in the first inning, the Huskies capitalized a big second frame to take down No. 25 Mississippi State, 7-5.
Washington’s big crooked number began with an Emma Helm two-run double. After a fielding error and a double steal made it 4-1, Morganne Flores launched a two-run home run to extend the Husky advantage, 6-1.
The Bulldog’s (4-3) Mia Davidson claimed all of Mississippi State runs, homering in the first, fourth and seventh innings. Freshman Grace Fagan pitched four complete frames, struck out four and surrendered just one run.
Gabbie Plain went the distance for Washington (5-1), striking out nine and walking just two.
Sydney Parr drew a bases loaded walk in the bottom of the seventh to give Arkansas a 7-6 win over North Dakota State at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge.
The game found new levels of excitement the later it went. Trailing 3-2, North Dakota State scored three runs, highlighted by Sam Koehn's two-run single, to make it 5-3 for the Bison. In the bottom of the inning, the Razorbacks answered back as Maggie Hicks launched a three-run homer to left to give Arkansas a 6-5 lead.
NDSU came off the deck with a run to tie in the seventh. With NDSU down to its last strike, Zoe Stavrou bounced an RBI single up the middle to tie the game, 6-6.
In the home half of the inning, two walks and a single loaded the bases with one out for Parr. On the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Parr watched one go by out of the strike zone for ball four, giving Arkansas the 7-6 victory.
KK Leedy went the distance in the circle, fanning seven as North Dakota State earned a 4-0 win over Northern Colorado in the first game for both teams at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge.
Leedy got help at the plate from Montana DeCamp, who connected on a solo homer in the fourth for what would prove to be the game-winning run for NDSU (4-1). In the seventh, Cara Beatty belted a two-run homer to extend the lead. Zoe Stavrou would finish the scoring with an RBI double later with two out in the inning.
Northern Colorado (1-5) had a hit in the first and back-to-back hits in the fifth from Emma Brockmann and Dani Young, but the Bears were ultimately kept off the board.
Katelyn Massa’s solo shot to center to start the sixth broke a 1-1 tie and helped Southern Illinois to a 4-1 win over Mississippi State to start session two of the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge.
Massa drove in SIU’s first run of the game with an RBI single in the first. The Bulldogs (4-2) tied the score in the third on an RBI hit by Kat Moore.
In the sixth, Massa started the inning with a home run to dead center field on a 3-2 pitch. Ashley Wood would double home a run, then Wood would score after Susie Baranski walked with the bases loaded.
That would be enough for Brianna Jones to finish off the win in the circle for SIU (4-2). Jones went the distance, giving up five hits and striking out three, improving to 3-1 on the season.
The 2018 season ended on a curious note for the Central Florida softball team, when a swinging bunt by a Memphis batter on a changeup led to a key run. Call it the kind of thing you just wouldn't have predicted.
As it turned out, something even wilder happened after the season, when the only coach the program ever had (Renee Luers-Gillispie) stepped down to take the head coaching position at Iowa, her home state. After 18 years, another changeup was about to rattle the UCF roster.
While no one denies the new era in Orlando has had challenging moments, there's a fresh bounce in the Knights' steps thanks to new coach Cindy Ball, who comes over from an impressive four-year stint at Boise State. Being a West Coast native has meant adjustments as well for Ball in this cross-country journey, but the Knights are in it together as the next phase begins.
UCF will play in Session 2 of the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge, Feb. 14-17.
"Coach (Gillispie) left it in a good spot, and I had experience following a coach who started the program (at Boise State), so I know about learning from what’s worked and what I might retain," said Ball, who was a two-time all-American pitcher at Pacific. "But the best thing is having confidence in who I am as a person and a coach, really making it clear that I will be different. The sooner we recognize that I can’t be someone I’m not … we talked about it as a group, and the girls have been very welcoming.
"My strength is, I go with my gut. One day we might be a little conservative, and the next day we may decide we have to go for it. We are learning about each other; our goal is to come out and perform and get to our best when that is required, which is at the end of the year."
Senior catcher Cassady Brewer was able to play catch-up pretty quickly after the coaching change, but it was a shock. The administration at UCF was in regular communication with players as the search for a replacement played out, and that was a big part in speeding up the adjustment once Ball came aboard.
"I kept an open mind on who they were going to pick, and I was very excited when I heard about Coach Ball. She knows what she’s talking about, and I learn something every day," said Brewer, who hit. 338 last year and with a keen eye also walked 37 times for an on-base percentage of .491. "It’s had its challenges, but I’ve enjoyed looking at this different way to go about the game. It feels like she’s been here forever, and it’s only been six months."
Ball said work continues on the task of imprinting her style of play and her priorities on a roster that might find some of it a bit alien. It started with conversations, and now it's up to full-speed game-time experience to buff out the rough edges. The talent is there, with returning players Denali Schappacher (.340 last year, 30 runs scored) and Aubrey Johnson (.294, seven home runs, 27 RBI).
"It comes down to trust. Getting to know the team was the first thing, and setting an environment where they knew they could trust me and I could trust them. My philosophy doesn’t matter if we don’t have that," Ball said. "I’ve run a dynamic offensive approach, and it speaks to how strong my team was last year (making the NCAA Tournament).
"I’ve learned a ton through that, and how to develop an offensive plan and philosophy that allows them to get better, keep it simple and not be mechanical. I’ve brought that here, and the girls seem to be excited about it. We can see adjustments and progression … I like to put the team in motion and use speed, but the roster will also dictate how we do that."
It always helps to have standout pitching when it comes to keeping spirits up, and the Knights have that in junior Alea White, who won 25 games last year and pitches 266 2/3 innings. She's trending to become the program's all-time leader in wins; Brewer enthusiastically talks about White's growth as a competitor who will keep digging even as situations look difficult.
There's nothing really proven after White in terms of the pitching circle, but UCF did bring in two freshmen (Breanna Vasquez and Ashley Stephenson) who will get some chances to balance the workload for the Knights.
"Alea has been a great leader and pitched a ton of innings, but the game is turning to having more of a pitching staff," Ball said. "You see it more and more in the season, the World Series, where teams usually have two or three pitchers who could be a No. 1. I’m excited for our two freshmen and how they respond to the schedule we have and the training we’ve done from the beginning."
Brewer is thrilled to be doing her piece; as a senior and a catcher, it's no stretch to say the Knights need her to be steady and persistent in tone and performance. The three-time all-AAC first team honoree agreed that thinking about her final year might generate some bittersweet feelings, but that's a conversation better suited weeks from today.
"With the new coaching staff, new teammates, I have high expectations for myself. So do my teammates and coaching staff," Brewer said. "Coach told me she needed me to buy in, and it’s been easy to do that. She said people will follow if you buy in. More and more have bought in to her vision. It’s fun to know people are looking up to me the way I looked up to others. I’m more likely to get in your face, and it depends on the person you are dealing with. I understand you have to figure out who you can confront, and who you have to kind of take over to the side and make your point. I always want us to meet our goals."
NOTE: Ball said the ability for players to make trips like the one to Puerto Vallarta would have been unheard of in her playing days at Pacific in the early 2000s, and she's glad her team takes advantage of these opportunities. "The NCAA has asked the girls, what has the game brought to us? A lot of them talked about the places they get to see and the people they get to impact. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, the game is pretty much the same … these young ladies get to play in a different environment and meet new people, teach the game at the clinics we’ll do down there, and see things in a different light."
Thursday will see Session 2 of the 2019 Puerto Vallarta College Challenge start in earnest with five games, and three teams currently ranked in the top 25 of the USA Today/NFCA poll will be in uniform. Here’s a quick look at how Session 2 teams got off the mark before making the trip to Mexico.
ARKANSAS – The Razorbacks swept their five-game run in Louisiana, with sophomore pitcher Mary Haff already in mid-season form with a 3-0 record with one walk and 28 strikeouts in 20 innings. Ashley Diaz had seven hits, including four doubles.
This is looking like another rebound season for the program as head coach Courtney Deifel enters her fourth year. In 2015 and 2016, the Razorbacks were a combined 2-46 in SEC play.
Arkansas is ranked No. 12 in the country and has four players in the Softball America Top 100. It will take on North Dakota State and No. 5 Washington on Thursday to start the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge.
MISSISSIPPPI STATE – The Bulldogs hosted their own tournament in Starkville to start the season and went 4-1 overall, including two shutouts. Sophomore pitcher Emily Williams (1-0) threw 13 innings and struck out 25 batters, and Alyssa Loza threw a five-inning perfect game in a win over Valparaiso while the offense ended the set with a .331 batting average.
Fa Leilua, a junior transfer from Arizona State, hit three home runs, and sophomore Mia Davidson hit two as well, including her first career grand slam. Mississippi State did lose the title game of the tournament, 1-0, to Stephen F. Austin, as freshman pitcher Kassidy Wilbur spun a two-hitter with four walks and nine strikeouts.
The Bulldogs (ranked No. 25 in the USA Today/NFCA poll) will play Southern Illinois and No. 5 Washington on Thursday at Puerto Vallarta.
NORTH DAKOTA STATE – The Bison went 3-1 overall at the Bobcat Classic, hosted by Texas State. The event ended with an exciting 4-3 win for NDSU in 10 innings over the host Bobcats – all the runs for both teams were scored in that final inning. Vanessa Anderson hit a bases-loaded double to plate three runs in the 10th for the Bison.
Madyson Camacho had six hits for NDSU, which will proceed with two sophomore and one freshman pitchers. The Bison will not actually play a home game until April 13 and the start of Summit League action.
NORTHERN COLORADO – The Bears will be looking for their footing for a bit under new head coach Ben Garcia, who had phenomenal success at D-II Colorado Mesa in his four season there. UNC went 1-4 in its opening slate at the Texas A&M Aggie Classic, securing a 6-1 victory over California Baptist.
Senior Kenzie Kudrna hit .385 at the event, and the Bears got home runs from Natalie Joyner, Dani Young and Shaena Robinson. UNC faced No. 20 Texas A&M in that first event and will play Arkansas on Friday in Mexico.
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS – The Salukis went 3-2 at the Lion Classic in Louisiana, capping the event with a 15-3 victory over Mississippi Valley State. Junior catcher Katelyn Massa was the Missouri Valley Conference players of the week after posting three doubles, three walks and six RBI.
Senior pitcher Brianna Jones closed with a 1.91 ERA, striking out 16 batters in 14 2/3 innings in getting two wins. The Salukis were 31-22 last year and will kick off Thursday’s action in Mexico against No. 25 Mississippi State.
WASHINGTON – The Huskies didn’t have to move a muscle from last week; they were 4-1 at Session 1 of the PV College Challenge. Sis Bates earned MVP honors, hitting .526; senior pitcher Taran Alvelo was 2-1 with a 0.43 ERA and a save as she appeared in all five contests, and the defense was solid, making just two errors over all five games.
Washington’s sole loss came in extra innings against Notre Dame. The Huskies are the second-highest Pac-12 team in the national rankings, trailing only No. 2 UCLA.
Rounding out Session 1 of the 2019 Puerto Vallarta College Challenge, No. 3 Washington took on No. 19 Baylor under the lights at Nancy Almaraz Stadium on Sunday evening. The Huskies used timely hitting and clutch pitching to walk away with the win, 8-2.
SilentRain Espinoza totaled three RBI on the night. Her first came in the second inning to give her squad the lead, 1-0.
Sis Bates and Sami Reynolds added to the total in the fourth inning, each securing RBI to push the Husky lead to 3-0.
Baylor (3-2) battled back in the fifth inning when Hannah Smith and Nicky Dawson knocked in a pair of runs to climb within one, 3-2.
Espinoza’s second and third RBI came in the top of the sixth inning, following a Taryn Atlee RBI sacrifice fly. Morganne Flores added extra insurance with a two-run shot in the seventh.
Taran Alvelo pitched the final three innings for the Huskies (4-1), gave up six hits and struck out four.
WASHINGTON 6, LIBERTY 0
No. 22 Liberty faced a stiff opponent in No. 3 Washington to round out is 2019 Puerto Vallarta College Challenge. A big fourth inning was all the Huskies needed to take care of the Flames, 6-0.
Sis Bates broke the stalemate in the top of the third inning with an RBI single that scored Megan Vandergrift.
The Huskies (3-1) broke open the game in the top of the fourth, scoring four runs. Kaija Gibson, Amirah Milloy, Sis Bates and Morganne Flores each recorded RBI for the Huskies.
Fresh off a five-strikeout performance against Duke on Saturday evening, Gabbie Plain followed it up with three clean innings, giving up just a single walk. Taran Alvelo took the reins in the fifth inning. The senior pitched four full frames, struck out two, walked two and gave up one hit.
Sarah Robertson connected for the only hit of the game for Liberty (1-4), a double in the bottom of the sixth inning.