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HUSKERS SOFTBALL TO SNEAK ACROSS THE BORDER: The Puerto Vallarta College Challenge Preview

After spending a good chunk of January slogging about in arctic temps & winds, the 2024 season begins in Mexico where dehydration & sunburns become the concerns.

The Huskers hoisted the B1G Championship trophy in 2022. Can that and perhaps bigger goals be on the 2024 squad’s mind?

“Playing with a lot of joy, with freedom, letting ourselves be passionate about the game we learned to play as kids and going for it. And really just letting the rest take care of itself.”

- Head Coach Rhonda Revelle when asked what she was looking for both this coming weekend and throughout the season.


“We have all the tools and that’s so exciting and our goal is to be the last team standing.

- Somewhat notable transfer Jordy Bahl


This Nebraska softball team isn’t ignorant. The last two years they have had some of the best bats in the nation and arguably THE best in the B1G. Coupled with battling pitchers like Sarah Harness (who returns), Olivia Ferrell (now an Asst Coach) and Courtney Wallace (who chucked an insane 222 innings in ‘23), they were good enough to make a couple regionals and grab the Big 10 Tournament trophy pictured above.

Then soon after the 2023 Women’s College World Series ended, that tournament’s MVP, Jordy Bahl -a Two-time 1st Team All-American, two-time Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, two-time 1st Team All Big 12…well, to shorten this paragraph let’s just say she decided to come home and play for the Huskers team she originally committed to in her freshman year of high school. And two WCWS titles later, it’s tough to question that decision.

But I’ll tell you one thing - this is the most impactful transfer in the history of college sports. I’ve researched it and thrown it out there to people before and have yet to come up with a transfer in any sport which can compare to a player having a freshman and sophomore season like that and switching to a program a couple tiers below. Go ahead and challenge me in the comments.


Anyway, the season kicks off this weekend in Mexico of all places with the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge. And you may be asking yourself just what is this?

Short answer? It’s a fancy way of playing a pile of games before the conference schedule kicks in and the weather warms up enough for northern teams to start playing at home. They call it a tournament/challenge/invitational/classic/etc.

Whatever.

Some are smaller with teams playing multiple games against each other, but many, like this one, are larger with 15 teams playing each other over two different weekends. Since all teams don’t play other-for example, Oklahoma will be there, but there will no Jordy vs. her old team match-up-, no champion is crowned, but in this case, there will be an all-tournament team.

This is the first of six consecutive weekends of these invitationals for the Huskers with two of them being hosted in Lincoln. The first of these will be the Big Red Invitational at Bowlin Stadium from March 1st-3rd. And I’ve gotta say if whoever scheduled that is even marginally aware of Nebraska weather patterns in that time frame, then they are breaking new ground for the power of optimism.

So enough rambling from me. Below is all the info you need to follow along this weekend. And while they won’t face the defending national champs, the Huskers will still find out quickly just where they stand with back-to-back games against #7 Washington and #11 Duke. And for a price, you can watch these on TV, currently the only games scheduled for the tube until the Big 10 tournament.

(Although, I’ll be stunned if B1G network doesn’t end up televising multiple Jordy Bahl starts once the conference games get rolling.)


THINGS TO LOOK FOR

  • Last year, the Huskers caught a bad break early when Kaylin Kinney suffered a season-ending injury just as the season was getting underway. This left NU with only two pitchers and the wear and showed at the end of the season.
  • That won’t be the case this year. While Courtney Wallace was lost to graduation, in addition to Bahl, Revelle also added another transfer and three freshmen. Add in the return of Kinney and there will be six arms on staff this year. Yes, there will be juggling and likely some redshirting, but if you think that bothers Coach Lori Sipple, you’d be wrong.

“Lori Sipple is as excited as I’ve ever seen her. She has a really good pitching staff with different skill sets. And we have a lefty for the first time in I don’t know how long.” -Coach Revelle

  • No one has said anything cocky or made any declarations of how far they expect to go, but at the fan day and press conference last Saturday, it was impossible not to sense the quiet confidence and burning desire to hit the field and start showing what they can do. Multiple coaches and players spoke in one way or another of how complete they think this team is. Having “all the tools” was mentioned by several. Tools to do what? I think we know.
  • And for any wondering if it’s just going to be softball in Mexico? I asked SS Billie Andrews if they were getting any “me time” to explore Puerto Vallarta. Her face just lit up as she stated how excited she was never having been there before. Their final game is Saturday at 10:30am and they will get the rest of the day check out their surroundings and hit the beach.
  • For any who have never watched college softball, I highly recommend it. I took my original dive at the B1G tourney two seasons ago as a way to try covering live sports and say hi to Liv Ferrell and her dad, having coached her in hockey years back. While I was doing that, I discovered I really enjoyed the game.
  • While I was speaking with Coach Sippel Saturday, I told her basically what I typed above about falling for the game.
  • She broke out in a big grin and said, “Addictive, isn’t it.”
  • Yes, coach, yes it is. I invite everyone else to try this drug.
The winning run scores in the bottom of the 9th against Wichita St. in an elimination game at the Stillwater regional, one of the most exiting games in Husker history.

GAME INFO

Schedule: (All times CST)

Feb. 8 vs. #7 Washington 6:30 p.m.
Feb. 9 vs. #11 Duke 12:30 p.m.
Feb. 9 vs. Long Beach St. 3 p.m.
Feb. 10 vs. Utah Valley 10:30 a.m.

Location: Nancy Almaraz Field, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Surface: Natural grass, dirt infield

TV: Streaming on FloSoftball. You can sign up at ww.flosoftball.com. It will require a monthly subscription of $29.99. Very important: After the tournament, you will need to go back and cancel or it will continue to renew at the $29.99 monthly.

Radio: Huskers Radio Network with Nate Rohr on the call. You can listen for free at Husker Audio - University of Nebraska - Official Athletics Website (huskers.com)

Weather: Get ready to be jealous. All three days are expected to be partly cloudy with a very slight chance of rain and highs around 80 with lows of 65.


THE OPPONENTS

#7 WASHINGTON

Washington earned a No. 7 preseason ranking in the NFCA coaches poll. Last season, the Huskies went 44-15 and advanced to the Women’s College World Series.

Washington hit .298 as a team last season and averaged 5.4 runs per game, but the Huskies lost all four of their .300 hitters from last year. In the circle, Washington posted a 2.50 ERA in 2023, and the Huskies bring back three of their four pitchers from a season ago. UW also had the No. 5 fielding percentage (.981) in the country in 2023.

PLAYER TO WATCH

In the circle, Omaha native Ruby Meylan was a third-team All-American as a freshman in 2023, and she is one of 50 players on the preseason watch list for the 2024 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award. Meylan went 18-7 with seven saves last season, compiling a 2.14 ERA and eight shutouts while throwing nearly half of Washington’s total innings.

#11 DUKE

Duke went 48-12 last season, finished second in the ACC and hosted an NCAA Super Regional. The Blue Devils are ranked 11th in the preseason NFCA coaches poll.

Duke ranked 15th nationally with a .318 batting average in 2023, and the Blue Devils were 23rd nationally in scoring (5.9 runs per game). Duke must replace only one bat in its starting lineup from last season and returns five .300 hitters. The Blue Devils also return all five pitchers from a staff that posted a 2.11 ERA in 2023.

PLAYER TO WATCH

D’Auna Jennings ranked 6th nationally with a .462 batting average as a freshman in 2023. Jennings was a second-team All-American last season and is on the preseason watch list for the 2024 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year award.

LONG BEACH STATE

Long Beach State was the Big West champion last season, finishing with a 31-23 record and a trip to an NCAA Regional. Friday’s game against Nebraska will mark the season opener for the Beach.

Long Beach State hit .256 as a team last season and averaged 3.3 runs per game. The top four batting average leaders all return. In the circle, LBSU posted a 2.57 ERA in 2023 and Long Beach State returns its top three pitchers from last season in terms of appearances and innings pitched.

PLAYER TO WATCH

In the circle, Shannon Haddad returns after earning first-team all-conference accolades last year. Haddad was 13-10 with a 2.10 ERA in 2023, leading the team in wins, strikeouts (109) and innings pitched (146.1). Haddad ranked 21st nationally with seven shutouts in 2023.

UTAH VALLEY

Utah Valley went 17-32 last season and tied for eighth place in the WAC standings. Utah Valley hit .266 as a team in 2023 and averaged 3.9 runs per game. The Wolverines return four of their top five hitters from a season ago but must replace their batting average leader.

Utah Valley allowed 5.2 runs per game in 2023 and posted a 4.93 ERA. The Wolverines must replace their top two pitchers who combined to throw 80 percent of the total innings.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Megan Gibbs is the lone returning .300 hitter for Utah Valley, after she ranked second on the team with a .306 average in 2023. Gibbs was the top power threat for the Wolverines, pacing the team with 11 home runs and 39 RBIs.


PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP

#6 BILLIE ANDREWS • SS

#98 JORDY BAHL • P

#7 SYDNEY GRAY • 3B

#44 KAYLIN KINNEY • DP

#24 AVA BREDWELL • C

#27 BROOKE ANDREWS • CF

#19 CAITLYNN NEAL • LF

#3 BELLA BACON • 1B

#66 KATELYN CANEDA • 2B

#29 SAMANTHA BLAND RF

The Huskers return seven starters from last season’s starting lineup. It would have been eight, but Abbie Squier is sitting out this season to recover from two off-season surgeries. Freshman Samantha Bland is projected to start for her in RF, while transfer and Omaha native Bella Bacon will replace Mya Felder at first.