Unbelievable competition, in an unusually gorgeous setting, and uncommon energy for the start of the college softball season.
Understandably, the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge has captured the attention of sports fans inside and outside the United States.
The five teams attending Session 1 of the event – Auburn, BYU, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Washington – went through lively practice sessions at Nancy Almaraz Stadium, the host field in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Groups of fans for these powerful softball programs also made their presence known, enjoying the sunshine and camaraderie before action begins in earnest Thursday morning.
As has been noted, this event includes preseason No. 1 and defending national champion Oklahoma along with NCAA runner-up and preseason No. 2 Auburn. Washington hit No. 13 in the early polls, while both BYU and Nebraska received Top 25 votes.
Here’s the schedule for Thursday:
BYU vs. Nebraska – 10 a.m. CT, 11 a.m. ET (ESPN 3)
Oklahoma vs. Auburn – 1 p.m. CT, 2 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
Oklahoma vs. BYU – 4 p.m. CT, 5 p.m. ET
Auburn vs. Washington – 7 p.m. CT, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN3)
The Auburn-Oklahoma matchup marks the first time in NCAA softball history that the two teams who competed for the last national title wound up playing each other to start the next campaign. While the Tigers are certainly brimming with talent and have reason for optimism in 2017, it’s not like the pain of coming up short has disappeared.
“Quite the contrary, we are realists. We didn’t take care of business. We make no excuses – Oklahoma beat us because they didn’t make any mistakes or give us extra opportunities," said Auburn head coach Clint Myers. "We had opportunities and we didn’t do the little things that national champions do. Attention to detail and to the little things has been our focal point so far.”
And from the Sooners’ perspective, all the handshakes and warm response from the softball community at large have to get filed away. Head coach Patty Gasso has said the No. 1 ranking is really a testament to last year’s team, and the 2017 OU program must earn its own reputation.
“You’ve got to move forward. It was a great experience that will live in the history or our program, but it’s unfair to this new team to keep living in the past," she said. "Once we got back on campus, it was a clean state, start over and let’s get to work. A lot of people ask about the pressure, and we try to not get caught up in that. This is truly a new road.”
The rest of Session 1 unfolds as follows:
Feb. 10 – Oklahoma vs. Nebraska (11 a.m. CT)
Nebraska vs. Auburn (2 p.m. CT)
BYU vs. Washington (7 p.m. CT)
Feb. 11 – BYU vs. Auburn (10 a.m. CT)
Nebraska vs. Washington (12:45 p.m. CT)
Oklahoma vs. Washington (3:30 p.m. CT)