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Utah Softball Takes Four of Five at NFCA Leadoff Classic

The defending Pac-12 champions played a five-game series at the NFCA Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Florida to ring in the highly anticipated 2024 season.
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Curtis Lin
The University of Utah Softball infielders huddle up prior to the start of the game in an NCAA Softball game vs. Arizona at Dumke Family Softball Field in Salt Lake City on April 6, 2019.

 

After a monumental 2023 season, the Lady Utes returned to the field to kick off the last season of Pac-12 softball. Over the weekend, the team participated in the NFCA Leadoff Classic — an event held in Clearwater, Florida — that showcases some of the top collegiate teams in the country. Heading into their first matches with a No. 13 ranking and four Utes named to the preseason All-Pac-12 team, Utah was ready to make their presence known as the team set off on another journey that will, hopefully, lead them back to the Women’s College World Series.

Army

For the first game of the weekend, Utah went up against the Army Black Knights in what would be a fiery first win for the Utes. Army kicked it off early, claiming the first run on a double at the top of the first inning. Utah promptly clapped back, with Julia Jimenez claiming a run off of a Leilani Melendez single when the Utes stepped up to the plate. Army faltered in the second inning, going three-up three-down and handing the inning over to Utah, where Shonty Passi and Aliya Belarde both added another run and Haley Denning stole home to make it 4-1.

Luckily for Utah, Army failed to catch up any further than a second run in the third inning. A series of errors from the Black Knights allowed Denning to steal third in the same inning, before she and Belarde rounded out the fourth at 6-2. In the bottom of the sixth, Denning would steal home for a second time to help ring in the Utes first win of the season, triumphing over Army with a final score of 7-2.

Missouri 

Following the win over Army, the Utes only had a few hours before hitting the field again to battle Missouri in Friday’s double header. Play started off slow for the two, with Jimenez squeaking out a run in the bottom of the first. Missouri tied it up in the second, but neither team could find home plate before Denning, in her trademark play of the day, stole home to help Utah inch past the Tigers.

Unfortunately for Utah, Missouri found the energy in the sixth and seventh innings, with a single in the sixth and a pair of doubles to left center in the seventh pushing three players across home plate. A double from Jimenez helped Shelbi Ortiz earn her first run of the day, but it regrettably came too late to save the Utes and the team fell to Missouri 3-4.

Notre Dame

After a split Friday, the Utes came into the next day looking to reestablish themselves — and next up on the docket was the unranked Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Utah came out swinging, with Belarde and Jimenez claiming runs straight out of the gate. A wild pitch let Denning score her fourth run of the weekend in the third, before Karlie Davison followed after a double down the line.

By the bottom of the fifth inning, Utah had found three more runs while Notre Dame remained at a standstill. The Fighting Irish eventually found home plate, claiming two runs in the bottom of the fifth but still sitting miles behind the Utes. Utah sat comfortably at the top while Notre Dame scored one more in the bottom of the sixth, before the match was called at 9-3 for Utah.

Not only was the game a redeeming one for the Utes, but it was also the first ever collegiate softball game to be broadcast live on the national MLB Network.

NC Central 

With the Utes’ second game of the day, it was time to take on the North Carolina Central Eagles. Unfortunately for the Eagles, Utah’s dominating win over Notre Dame only seemed to power the Utes more — and as a result, NC Central suffered a tough bashing.

As with the Fighting Irish earlier in the day, the Utes opened the top of the first with a run from Denning, but were forced to turn it over with Kaylah Nelsen and Belarde still left on base. Stepping up to the plate, the Eagles struck out early on, which signaled the start of a scoring drought on both sides. Until the fourth inning, only two hits were made by either team before a pair of wild pitches allowed Davison to grab another run.

Heading into the fifth, Belarde tucked another run under her belt, while Reese Lee checked off her own in the sixth. In the seventh and final inning, Utah closed the day with three more runs from Jimenez, Davison and Abby Dayton, winning 7-0 and rendering the Eagles helpless.

Iowa

In the final installment of the NFCA Leadoff Classic, the Utes matched up with the University of Iowa Hawks. Perhaps fatigued from the previous four games of the weekend, Utah had a slow start, though the Hawks were not any more bright-eyed themselves.

The first inning went scoreless, though the bottom of the second saw a double to left field from Dayton, advancing her to third and subsequently earning the Utes a run. All remained quiet again until the bottom of the fourth when Dayton once again advanced to third after a single from Denning, and before long the Utes were up 2-0.

It was not until the top of the sixth that Iowa managed to play some catch up, when an error from Utah allowed a runner across the plate. However, Utah had a little bit of juice left in them, and in the bottom of the sixth sophomore Hailee White sealed it for the Utes with one more run after a single from Denning. With that, Utah took home four wins of the five game weekend, officially ringing in the 2024 Pac-12 season.

After a jam-packed weekend in Florida, the Utes will enjoy a couple of days of rest before jetting off to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to take part in the Puerto Vallarta Challenge series. The five matches will take place from the Feb. 15-18 and can be streamed on flosoftball.com.

 

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@abbey0thomas

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About the Contributor
Abbey Thomas, Assistant Sports Editor
Abbey Thomas started at the Daily Utah Chronicle in the fall of 2022 as a Sports Writer and is now Assistant Sports Editor for the desk. She is currently studying Cultural Anthropology with a minor in history and hopes to pursue medicine one day. Abbey is a die-hard fan of Real Salt Lake and Manchester City, and loves to travel and practice photography in her free time!

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