Puerto Vallarta College Challenge
Updated: Feb 23, 2022
The sun, sand, and softball were all elite in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for one of the NCAA’s premiere softball tournaments. The only NCAA sanctioned event outside the US drew some of the nation’s best, including three tournament teams from last year. The headliners were the Texas Longhorns, who emerged as the nation’s top offense in the opening week, and the Mexican national team that sported some of the best players to ever take the field. Before them though, Session one at Nancy Almaraz stadium was headlined by the Oregon Ducks. After struggling a year ago, the Ducks got back on track and remain one of the nation’s only undefeated teams.
A team that had only one scholarship pitcher a year ago got non-stop dazzling performances from a terrific trio in the circle. Their offense got going as well, and the Ducks went back to Eugene as one of the co-champions of the PV College Challenge (the other being the other undefeated: Oklahoma) Then, Session Two began in earnest with a very fun nightcap between two Power 5 programs: the Utah Utes and the Ole Miss Rebels. Ole Miss proved how much preseason polls are worth last year: after they were selected 12th, the Rebels didn’t drop an SEC series until the final weekend of the year in Athens. But a ton of offseason turnover had the 2020 Rebels searching for their identity on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. Their polar opposites were the Utah Utes: only 19 wins a year ago but returning a huge group of veterans. And their newcomers were phenomenal throughout the tournament as well. That was evident when after six hardfought innings the freshman Haley Denning got into scoring position and was brought home by the All-Pac12 second baseman Julia Noskin. The undefeated Utes stayed that way, but a powerhouse loomed the next day… Before that though, the tournament’s smallest school loomed large. The California Baptist University Lancers are only in their second year at the D1 level, and yet fought toe-to-toe with all the amazing squads in this tournament. That included breaking a losing streak against NCAA-tourney qualifier Colorado State. The theme of the year for both squads has been extremely tight games, but one had to give out eventually. The Lancers got on their horse and scored the critical runs late, Colorado State brought the winning run to the plate, but couldn’t deliver. Now, that juggernaut we mentioned: that would be the Texas Longhorns.
Shattering all of their previous opening offensive records, this was a squad averaging nearly double digit runs per game. And while they didn’t start that way, the bats absolutely came alive near the end of day two. After getting shut out for six innings against a freshman pitcher, the Longhorns felt their back against the wall for the first time all year. And you know what they say about a cornered Longhorn. A Kaitlyn Slack started the improbable comeback for the Horns, who scored three in the bottom of the seventh to hand Utah their first loss of the season 3-2. As it turns out, this was only the beginning of the revival of the Texas attack. The second day ended with the most anticipated matchup of the tournament: UT v UT, Burnt Orange v Tennessee Orange, a top 15 clash between the Longhorns and the Lady Vols. And it was essentially over in the first inning. An EIGHT spot in the opening frame made for quite the statement by the Horns. Six of those runs came with two outs, so it could’ve been a very different game if Tennessee had gotten one different bounce. The Lady Vols were also without their ace due to injury, where this should’ve been a battle of ones. Instead, the Longhorns announced their elite status with a run-rule victory. That was without question the most impressive offensive performance of the tournament. The elite play in the circle came for the Rebels in a game that didn’t count. The exhibitions against Team Mexico don’t show up in the standings, but it’s a game that Rebels pitcher Anna Borgen won’t forget.
Against some of the best hitters the sport has scene, Borgen worked a one-hit victory giving up just one run. She also outdueled two All-American pitchers, one of whom was the top NPF draft pick in Kelly Barnhill. This is exactly the type of game that interim head coach Reuben Felix can use to try and light a fire for his squad. The final day of collegiate action ended with another matchup controlled by the Longhorns. After the games in PV had concluded, it was announced that Texas had moved into the top five. There was no question that would be the case after seeing them in this international series. They got up quickly on Ole Miss, who couldn’t capitalize on the Mexico game in the immediate aftermath. And once UT got up, they simply allowed their ace to smother any comeback bid. Miranda Elish was dominant in both of her starts in PV, earning tournament MVP. Overall, the action in Mexico saw some incredible moments and plays. The pre-conference slate is all about learning who the genuine elite are and what the full pecking order will be in the NCAA ranks. The sun shone and a whole lot of new facts were brought to light in the sands of Puerto Vallarta.