The 2015 softball season marks the debut of the Triple Crown Puerto Vallarta College Challenge, set for Feb. 26-28 at Nancy Almaraz Stadium in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Taking their swings in the inaugural event are the programs from BYU, Nevada, Northern Colorado and Southern Illinois.
This event has all the makings of a desirable tournament destination as teams will stay at the all-inclusive Sheraton Hotel on the Pacific coast, a short trek from both the practice fields and the stadium. Coaches and players will hold a clinic for local children on Feb. 25, which is also a practice day for teams. Here’s a preseason look at each of the four schools:
BYU – The Cougars have played in four separate conferences in the past four years (Mountain West, Western Athletic, Pacific Coast, West Coast), but that hasn’t rattled the Cougars in the least, with the program reaching the NCAA postseason for 10 straight years. In 2014, BYU closed with a 34-23 record, winning 16 consecutive games at one point and 20 out of 21. Seven freshmen saw significant playing time, helping head coach Gordon Eakin feel confident his team can get cooking right out of the gate.
“The winning streak came from the growth and experience of a young squad. It was eye-opening for a lot of them, that first year,” Eakin said. “There’s such a difference in speed and strength, and it took them a few games to realize they truly belonged.”
Sophomore McKenna Bull threw 173.1 innings as a freshman, going 16-9 overall with seven saves and a 3.15 ERA. That puts her first in line for the majority of starts in 2015, but Eakin believes the five-game structure of early tournaments mandates use of a deeper staff – look for sophomore Ashley Thompson to be leaned on, as well as a couple of incoming freshmen.
Another sophomore, Sydney Broderick, provides a clear anchor for the offense. She started all 57 games in 2014, hitting .360 on the way to earning co-freshman of the year and first-team all-WCC honors. Junior outfielder Gordy Bravo played on the Mexican national team over the summer; Eakin thinks she’s the most prepared player on the roster for 2015. Yet another sophomore, McKenzie St. Clair, is expected to shine after earning first-team all-WCC honors (.350 BA, 34 RBI, best OBP on team at .452).
“It’s always a growth process the first tournament or two,” Eakin added, “but our expectation is to play with anyone.”
Nevada – The Wolfpack decided to skip a formal fall schedule in 2014, with many players on the roster recovering from injuries, surgeries and the like. Last spring certainly did test the roster of head coach Matt Meuchel, whose team finished 27-25 overall and had to withstand a 1-11 stretch during Mountain West Conference play.
A rebound in 2015 could very well be ignited by senior Karley Hopkins, a career .375 hitter who played 11 games last season before being sidelined by a broken ankle. She was granted one extra year of eligibility on medical hardship.
“We learned how to handle adversity. That middle stretch there came when we were very banged up, trying to cope without Hopkins,” Meuchel said. “Two of our big three arms were down as well. A pitcher could go maybe six innings and then have to sit for three days. We came together as a team and had a chance to win the last seven games we played.”
All that flux in the lineup led to an unusual pitching dynamic, where three different players had 14 or more decisions. Freshman Chase Redington was brought in to contribute immediately, while 2014 assets Megan Dortch and McKenna Isenberg are back to offer quality depth.
“We’ve got three on the staff, and the freshman will play a huge part,” Meuchel said. “She’s got a lot of talent in the circle, and she’ll get a good chunk of the opportunities. It won’t be so much who has the hot hand, but it’s the one or two that are the most consistently competitive.”
Offensively, the table should be set by junior Megan Sweet (all- MWC second team), who hit .363 and scored 53 runs. Right there in the conversation is Amanda Weiss, a junior who clubbed 12 home runs and had a disciplined eye at the plate with a .423 OBP.
The Puerto Vallarta event made sense to Nevada from the start, Meuchel added.
“It’s an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise. The setting will be an amazing place to take a business trip,” he said. “We had that same situation with Hawaii when we played them in our conference, and one reason we had no questions about Puerto Vallarta is because we know about taking a trip, having a ton of fun and playing well.”
Northern Colorado – A refreshing change in the drumbeat of winter weather has head coach Shana Easley even more enthused about the start of a season.
The Bears have had a chance to get some live throws, swings and touches before the schedule fires up, which is something of a luxury.
It’s the third year for softball in the Big Sky Conference, as well as Easley’s third season at UNC (she was coach of the year in 2014). Developing the program, raising the profile from scratch and emerging from the shadows have been primary themes for Easley and her staff.
“We are building as many relationships as we can, expanding our reach and working to build awareness of the program,” she said. “We’ve thought a lot about what we envision and how to build it. We expect to compete at a high level, and players are buying into the beliefs and system.”
The Bears were 20-33 last year but have enough returning strength and interesting newcomers to be a stubborn opponent in 2015. Australian native Jayme Reddacliff threw 68 innings last year but was a latecomer to the scene – with a full year under her belt in the States, she is expected to improve significantly. Injuries have limited some other options in the circle for Easley, but that opens the door for freshman Kelli Kleis.
UNC had three first-team all-Big Sky players last year as juniors (Mikayla Duffy, Melissa Marcovecchio and Morgan Yuhas) who return as the guts of the offense. Duffy hit .387, drove in 48 runs and had 24 extra-base hits; Yuhas hit .331 and stole 17 bases, and Marcovecchio hit .301, earning first-team honors for the second time – not bad for a player who stands all of 5 feet tall.
“Melissa just has the mentality you need. She gets the extra reps, lives at the ball park and loves every minute,” Easley said. “People overlook her because of her size, but she uses that as motivation. They see her, think she’s a slapper and play in, and she hits a triple.
“Puerto Vallarta will be a new experience for our athletes. We want to give them the best experiences they can have here – it should be good competition, and we are happy to give back to the community there, bring out the local kids.”
Southern Illinois – The Salukis leaned on their freshman group in 2014 and had the typical ups-and-downs, but the team closed above .500 (28-24) and had a stretch in the last third of the campaign that saw them win 10 of 11 games.
So with five starters graduated, SIU still can rely on having four of its top five hitters back in uniform thanks to the youth movement.
“We’ve certainly lost some talented players, but we are coming back with some kids who can really play. Our freshmen had such a huge impact last year,” said Kerri Blaylock, one of only two head coaches the program has had in the 47 years. “We have a lot of team chemistry, and I hope they will be rewarded on the field, because they are doing everything right here at the start.”
Teams love an anchor at pitcher, and the Salukis have one in senior Katie Bertlesen. She won 14 games last year, threw 188 innings and is a steadying presence in the circle. Freshman Savanna Dover will get the chance to throw, and sophomore Shaye Harre is also a strong-armed option as Blaylock tries to give Bertlesen the occasional breather.
Harre is expected to have a daily impact after a stellar first-year run. She hit .329 with 43 RBI and had a top-notch OBP of .454.
“I don’t expect to see Shaye take a step back,” Blaylock said. “She is just so balanced in everything, with softball and academics. She won’t get too high or too low, and the reasons she was successful for as a freshman will be why she’s a success all four years.”
Two other returners who hit better than .300 last year are Kelsey Gonzalez (.328, 4 HR) and Kalyn Harker (.313, 14 stolen bases).
“It’s exciting to be headed to Puerto Vallarta,” Blaylock added. “I’ve known Dave King and Patty Harsch at Triple Crown for a long time; this will be a great experience for the kids, and I think it will help with recruiting as well. It will be an atmosphere that has everything.”