NEB Softball: Huskers Head to Mexico for Season-Opening Tournament

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Courtesy: UNL Media Relations

Huskers Head to Mexico for Season-Opening Tournament
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The Nebraska softball team goes international to open its 2017 season this week, as the Huskers will travel to Mexico to play four top teams in three days at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge.

After practicing in Puerto Vallarta on Tuesday and Wednesday, Nebraska will play the first Division I softball game of the 2017 season on Thursday against BYU at 10 a.m. The Huskers then face No. 1 Oklahoma at 11 a.m. on Friday, before taking on second-ranked Auburn immediately after the OU game. Nebraska closes the tournament on Saturday with a 12:45 p.m. matchup with No. 13 Washington.

NU opens against a BYU team that the Huskers eliminated in the 2016 NCAA Columbia (Mo.) Regional before taking on three consecutive top-15 opponents on Friday and Saturday. Thursday’s season opener will air on ESPN3 with former Husker Nicole Trimboli joining former Northwestern All-American Garland Cooper on the call.

Friday sees Nebraska take on the two teams that battled for the 2016 national championship, with Oklahoma defeating Auburn, 2-1, in the best-of-three championship series. Against the Sooners, Nebraska will be looking for its fourth win vs. the No. 1 team following 1-0 victories over Michigan (2016), Oklahoma (2013) and Florida (2011).

Saturday’s final game against No. 13 Washington promises to be a thriller if recent history is any indication. Each of the last three meetings between the Huskers and Huskies has produced a walk-off finish, with Washington winning in 2013 and 2016 and the Huskers walking off with a win in 2014.

All four games this week are scheduled for a free radio broadcast on Huskers.com, although connectivity issues could be a challenge.

This Week’s Top 10

  1. Thursday’s Nebraska-BYU game will be the first Division I softball game of the 2017 season.
  2. The season opener with the Cougars will mark the 2,175th game in Husker softball history and the first to be played outside the United States.
  3. No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 2 Auburn, No. 13 Washington, Nebraska and BYU (both receiving votes) are all ranked or receiving votes in the preseason poll.
  4. The five teams combined for a 255-77 record in 2016 and all recorded a win in the NCAA Tournament. Oklahoma (1st), Auburn (2nd), Washington (t-9th) and Nebraska (t-17th) all posted top-20 finishes.
  5. Of the 50 players on the USA Softball Player-of-the-Year Watch List, eight are in Puerto Vallarta.
  6. Nebraska has won four straight season openers, and the Huskers are 17-2 in their last four season-opening tournaments.
  7. The 2017 roster features 21 players, tying for the largest roster in program history.
  8. The Husker roster also features seven freshmen and eight Nebraska natives, with both totals tying for the most in Rhonda Revelle’s 25 seasons as Husker head coach.
  9. Friday’s game with Oklahoma will mark Revelle’s 1,400th game as Nebraska’s head coach.
  10. MJ Knighten enters this week needing to score four runs to become the third Husker to total 150 career hits, 150 career runs and 150 career RBIs.

Loaded Field in Mexico
Despite a roster consisting of one-third freshmen, Nebraska did not shy away from a challenging February schedule. The tough slate begins this week with a loaded five-team field at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge.

  • All five teams (Auburn, BYU, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Washington) won at least one game in the 2016 NCAA Tournament last year, combining for a 25-10 record.
  • The five teams have combined for 11 top-10 national finishes the past four seasons and 14 top-20 finishes.
  • Auburn, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Washington were all ranked during the 2016 season. The Sooners (No. 1), Tigers (No. 2) and Huskies (No. 13) were ranked every week last year and finished the season in the top 15.
  • In particular, Nebraska’s pitching staff will be challenged in every game this week, as all three of the Huskers’ four opponents ranked in the top 15 in scoring last year.
  • Individually, three of the eight returning 2016 first-team All-Americans will be in Puerto Vallarta this weekend (Auburn’s Kasey Cooper, Nebraska’s MJ Knighten and Oklahoma’s Paige Parker).
  • Three of the nation’s top five returning home run leaders will be in Puerto Vallarta (Cooper, Knighten and Washington’s Ali Aguilar).
  • Three of the nation’s five returning players who produced 60 hits, 60 runs and 60 RBIs in 2016 will be in Puerto Vallarta (Cooper, Knighten and Aguilar).
  • In the circle, BYU’s McKenna Bull is the nation’s active wins leader with 77 career victories, while Oklahoma’s Paige Parker ranks sixth on that list (66 career wins) and owns the most wins of any non-senior.
  • Three of the 16 active coaches enshrined in the NFCA Hall of Fame will be coaching in Puerto Vallarta this week (Oklahoma’s Patty Gasso, Auburn’s Clint Myers and Nebraska’s Rhonda Revelle).

Husker History in Season Openers
Nebraska owns a 25-15 all-time record in season openers. The Huskers have won four straight season openers and five of their last six, improving Head Coach Rhonda Revelle to 16-8 in her 24 season openers, including a 13-3 mark against unranked opponents.

Nebraska vs. No. 1
Nebraska will face No. 1 Oklahoma in its second game. NU is 3-13 all-time vs. the top-ranked team, including a 3-10 regular-season record. The Huskers defeated No. 1 Michigan last season, and Nebraska’s last non-conference win over the No. 1 team was at Oklahoma in 2013.

Knighten Among Top Returners
MJ Knighten was among 18 players named a 2016 first-team All-American, including eight 2017 returning players.

  • Knighten is looking to become the first Husker to be a first-team All-American in back-to-back seasons and just the second to twice be named a first-team All-American.
  • As one of eight returning 2016 first-team All-Americans, Knighten earned a spot as one of 50 players nationally on the 2017 USA Softball Player-of-the-Year Watch List.
  • Last season, Knighten became the first Husker ever to average 1.0 hit, 1.0 run and 1.0 RBI per game. She was one of eight players nationally to accomplish that feat, and Knighten is one of only four returning players who averaged 1.0 hit, 1.0 run and 1.0 RBI per game in 2016.
  • In 2016, Knighten became the first player in NU history to total 60 hits, 60 runs and 60 RBIs in a season. She was one of only nine players nationally to accomplish that feat in 2016 and is one of only five returning players who totaled 60 hits, 60 runs and 60 RBIs last season.
  • Knighten ranked fourth nationally with 21 home runs in 2016. Her 21 home runs last season are the second-most nationally among all returning players.
  • Knighten has produced 60 RBIs in each of the past two seasons. She is one of three Huskers to record a 60-RBI season and one of only two Huskers to have two seasons with 60 or more RBIs. This spring,
  • Knighten will look to become the first player in school history to post three seasons with 60 or more RBIs.
  • Knighten is also ranks sixth nationally among all active players with 158 career RBIs.

Knighten on the Cusp of Elite Club
Nebraska senior MJ Knighten has a chance to join an elite Husker club this week.

  • Knighten needs four runs scored to become just the third Husker to total 150 career hits, runs and RBIs. She would join three-time All-American Ali Viola and two-time All-American Taylor Edwards in that exclusive club.

Knighten a ‘Hit’ with the Big Red
Nebraska senior MJ Knighten has been a hitting machine in her career, totaling 202 hits in only 175 games.

  • Knighten is just the second Husker to total 200 hits before her senior season and the first in 14 years.
  • Knighten also enters her senior season with a strong chance to become the fifth player in program history to finish her career with more hits than games played.
  • Knighten is one of only five players in Nebraska history to produce at least 50 hits as a freshman, sophomore and junior. This season, she looks to become the fourth Husker to total 50 hits all four seasons of her career.
  • The consistently high hit totals have helped Knighten become one of only eight Huskers to post a .300 batting average as a freshman, sophomore and junior. This season, Knighten is bidding to become the seventh Husker to hit .300 all four years of her career.

McClure A Decorated Pitcher
Senior right-hander Cassie McClure was a third-team All-Central Region selection as a freshman at Texas Tech in 2014, and is a two-time, first-team All-Midwest Region honoree at Nebraska. McClure has made the All-Midwest first team at the pitcher/utility spot in her two seasons as a Husker, earning recognition for both her offensive and pitching prowess.

  • McClure is only the fifth Husker pitcher to be a two-time, first-team all-region honoree, and she is looking to become the first pitcher in Nebraska history to be a three-time first-team all-region selection in 2017.
  • McClure is one of only four pitchers nationally who is a three-time all-region selection. Among that quartet, McClure and Minnesota’s Sara Groenewegen are the only players to twice earn first-team recognition.

McClure a Versatile Pitcher
Senior Cassie McClure has been a versatile and productive pitcher in her first two seasons at Nebraska.

  • McClure factored into 22 of the Huskers’ 35 wins last season, registering 17 victories and five saves. In her first two seasons, McClure has factored into more than half of Nebraska’s 75 wins (36 total: 26 wins, 10 saves).
  • McClure has tied for the Big Ten lead with five saves each of the past two seasons. She ranked 12th nationally in saves in 2015 and 16th in 2016.
  • McClure owns 10 saves in two seasons at Nebraska, which is tied for the third-highest total in school history. The Husker record is 16, held by NU pitching coach Lori Sippel.
  • McClure owns 11 career saves including her freshman season at Texas Tech. Her 11 career saves rank in a tie for fifth among all active Division I pitchers.
  • McClure was one of 14 pitchers nationally who totaled at least 15 wins and five saves in 2016. She is one of 10 returning pitchers in 2017 who recorded 15 wins and five saves.
  • McClure is one of only 10 active Division I pitchers with 25 career victories and 10 career saves.

McClure Excels vs. Top-10 Teams
Senior right-hander Cassie McClure has excelled against top competition in her career. McClure is 3-2 with one save in seven career outings vs. top-10 opponents.

  • McClure won three games against top-10 opponents last season, including a 2-0 record in three starts.
  • McClure tossed a shutout against No. 1 Michigan last season, becoming the third Husker pitcher to defeat a top-ranked opponent. McClure was also one of only six pitchers in 2016 to defeat the No. 1-ranked team.

Several Huskers are Strong Starters
Led by seniors MJ Knighten and Cassie McClure, several Huskers have enjoyed success at season-opening tournaments during their Nebraska careers.

  • Knighten was named the first 2016 Big Ten Player of the Week after a remarkable performance in Nebraska’s five games at the 2016 UNI-Dome Classic.
  • Knighten went 12-for-19 (.632) at last year’s season-opening tournament, producing one double, five homers, eight runs and 14 RBIs in only five games.
  • McClure was named the first 2016 Big Ten Pitcher of the Week after a near-flawless performance in Nebraska’s five games at the 2016 UNI-Dome Classic.
  • McClure tossed a total of 12.0 scoreless innings in last year’s season-opening tournament, posting a 2-0 record with a 0.00 ERA and two saves. McClure allowed only five singles in her 12.0 innings with 16 strikeouts.
  • In her first start of 2016, McClure fired a one-hit shutout with a career-high 10 strikeouts in a win vs. Green Bay.
  • In her first start of 2015 McClure allowed one run on two hits in a complete-game win over Colorado State.
  • Offensively, McClure is 12-for-26 (.462) with two doubles, one home run, seven runs and five RBIs in season-opening tournaments the past two seasons.
  • McClure has helped Nebraska to a 9-1 record in season-opening tournaments over her first two seasons with the Big Red. McClure has factored into seven of those nine victories, posting a 5-0 record with two saves.
  • Junior Gina Metzler has also performed well in the opening weekend her first two seasons. Metzler is 6-for-16 (.375) in her first two season-opening tournaments with five runs scored. Six of Metzler’s seven career hits – and her only career extra-base hit – have come during Nebraska’s season-opening tournaments.
  • Junior Laura Barrow has been strong in each of her first two opening weekends as a Husker. Barrow is 12-for-37 (.324) with three doubles, 11 runs scored and seven RBIs in her first two season-opening tournaments.

Scouting BYU (0-0)
BYU went 36-21 in 2016, losing to Nebraska in the semifinals of the NCAA Columbia (Mo.) Regional. The Cougars return eight starters and 14 letterwinners from last year’s team. BYU must replace only two players from the 2016 squad, and the Cougars have added four freshmen to the fold.

Offensively, the Cougars bring back four .300 hitters from last season and eight of their top nine hitters overall. BYU must only replace Gordy Bravo, who started 52 games and hit .312 with six doubles, three triples and 11 RBIs last season, and Coco Tauali’i Bond, who started all but one game at third base in 2016 and batted .207 with five doubles, four homers and 17 RBIs.

Seniors Ashley Thompson (.400) and Lauren Bell (.373) return to lead the BYU offense after posting the top two batting averages in 2016. Thompson also led the Cougars in doubles (12), stolen bases (12) and slugging percentage (.733), while sophomore Libby Sugg returns after leading BYU with 18 homers and 58 RBIs in 2016. The Cougars return more than 80 percent of their production in every offensive category from 2016, and BYU’s returning hitters combined for a .303 average last season.

In the circle, BYU brings back all three pitchers from its 2016 staff. Senior McKenna Bull, the reigning two-time West Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year, went 27-13 with a 2.63 ERA last season. She is one of only four active Division I pitchers who is a three-time all-region selection. Bull leads all Division I players with 77 career victories and ranks second in appearances (140), starts (112), and innings (694.1), third in complete games (70), fourth in strikeouts (748), sixth in shutouts (21) and ninth in saves (10).

Olivia Sanchez (7-8, 3.38 ERA in 91.0 IP) and Arissa Paulson (2-0, 7.69 ERA in 23.2 IP) also return, although Bull threw nearly 70 percent of the total innings in 2016, while appearing in 48 of BYU’s 57 games, including 42 starts and 31 complete games.

Scouting Oklahoma (0-0)
Oklahoma (58-7 in 2016) won its third national championship last year, defeating Auburn in three games in the Women’s College World Series Championship Series. The Sooners won 32 of their final 33 games last season and have won 22 straight regular-season contests, dating back to a 5-2 loss to Kansas on April 2, 2016.

OU lost eight letterwinners from last year’s team, but the Sooners return 10 starters, including two All-Americans. Oklahoma must replace only two starters from last season, but one of those players is Erin Miller, the 2016 Big 12 Player of the Year and a second-team All-American. Miller led the Sooners with 22 doubles last season, while ranking second on the team with 52 RBIs and third with nine homers and a .378 average.

Oklahoma returns five of its top six hitters from 2016, four of whom are sophomores. Shay Knighten, the youngest sister of NU senior MJ Knighten, led OU with a .397 average, 13 homers and 62 RBIs in 2016. Knighten was the 2016 Big 12 Freshman of the Year and a second-team All-American. Classmates Fale Aviu (.355), Caleigh Clifton (.351) and Sydney Romero (.346) are also returning .300 hitters, as are juniors Kelsey Arnold (.382), Nicole Pendley (.321) and Lea Wodach (.315). The Sooners return the majority of a 2016 offense that ranked in the top 15 nationally in average (2nd), slugging percentage (7th), on-base percentage (10th) and scoring (13th).

In the circle, two-time All-American and two-time Big 12 Pitcher of the Year Paige Parker is back for her junior year as OU’s lone returning pitcher. Parker threw nearly 60 percent of Oklahoma’s total innings last season while compiling a 38-3 record with a 1.64 ERA and 269 strikeouts in 252.2 innings. Parker led the nation in wins last season and ranked second in shutouts (14), 10th in strikeouts and 21st in ERA. Parker has won 31 straight decisions, with her last loss coming at Cal State Fullerton on March 18, 2016. The staff is also bolstered by the addition of junior transfer Paige Lowary, who went 25-8 with a 3.25 ERA in 198.0 innings at Missouri last season.

OU also ranked second nationally with a .983 fielding percentage in 2016, committing only 28 errors in 65 games.

Scouting Auburn (0-0)
Auburn went 58-12 in 2016, finishing as the national runner-up to Oklahoma. The Tigers return 16 letterwinners and six starters, but must replace three talented hitters.

The Tigers lost three of their top four hitters from last season’s offense, which led the nation in scoring and ranked fifth in on-base percentage and 12th in home runs and slugging percentage. Emily Carosone, Tiffany Howard and Jade Rhodes must all be replaced. Carosone was a three-time All-American who ranked second on the team with a .399 average in 2016 while adding 13 doubles, 13 homers and 67 RBIs. Howard was a 2015 third-team All-American, and she batted .390 with team-high totals of 96 hits and 11 stolen bases last spring. Rhodes was also a third-team All-American in 2016, when she batted .338 with 11 doubles, 20 homers and 74 RBIs, ranking second on the team in homers and RBIs.

Despite the three big losses, Auburn still returns plenty of offensive talent, led by Kasey Cooper, the 2016 espnW Player of the Year. Cooper, the 2016 SEC Player of the Year, has earned All-America accolades in each of her first three seasons and is one of eight returning 2016 first-team All-Americans. Cooper led the Tigers with a .422 average, 21 home runs, 71 walks and 83 RBIs last spring. She led the nation in walks and ranked second in RBIs, fourth in home runs and fifth in on-base percentage. Behind Cooper, Victoria Draper (.325) is the Tigers’ only other returning .300 hitter, while Madi Gipson (43 RBIs) and Carlee Wallace (42) both drove in more than 40 runs in 2016.

In the circle, Auburn lost three of its five pitchers from last season, but the Tigers return their two pitchers who threw the most innings. Makayla Martin was one of the nation’s top freshmen in 2016, compiling a 15-4 record with a team-low 1.57 ERA in 116.0 innings. She ranked 20th nationally in ERA and added two saves. Kaylee Carlson also returns after starting a team-high 22 games in 2016 and leading the Tigers with 130.2 innings pitched. Carlson was 19-2 with a 2.36 ERA last spring.

Scouting Washington (0-0)
Washington won a home regional last year, advanced to an NCAA Super Regional and earned a No. 13 final ranking with a 39-15 record. The Huskies return 13 of their 20 players from a season ago, including six position players who made at least 35 starts and each of their top three pitchers.

Offensively, Washington returns the bulk of its production from a 2016 offense that ranked second nationally in doubles, fourth in slugging percentage, fifth in scoring, eighth in on-base percentage and ninth in batting average and home runs. UW must replace Kimberlee Souza, a 2016 first-team All-American who hit .349 last season with 10 doubles, 13 homers and 59 RBIs. Courtney Gano must also be replaced. Gano batted .373 with eight doubles, three homers and 24 RBIs last season despite playing in only 25 games.

The Huskies return five of their top six hitters from 2016, led by Ali Aguilar, a second-team All-American last season. Aguilar batted .367 in 2016 and led Washington with 21 home runs, 39 walks and 70 RBIs, while ranking second on the team with 15 doubles. Aguilar led the nation in runs per game (1.4) last year, while ranking fourth in home runs, eighth in RBIs and 15th in slugging percentage. Trysten Melhart also returns after leading the Huskies with a .378 batting average and eight stolen bases last spring. Julia DePonte (.371), Taylor Van Zee (.369), Kelly Burdick (.354), Casey Stangel (.341) and Morganne Flores (.303) are all returning starters who hit better than .300 last season.

In the circle, Washington returns all but 13.2 innings pitched from last season. Taran Alvelo was one of the nation’s top freshman pitchers, posting an 18-7 record with a 3.17 ERA. She led the team in innings (152.1), appearances (32) and starts (25), while averaging one strikeout per inning. Madi Schreyer threw 125.1 innings over 32 appearances and 19 starts, compiling a 13-4 record and a 3.52 ERA. Stangel posted a team-low 2.89 ERA while finishing with a 6-4 record in 63.0 innings.