By Courtney Oakes
Westminster, Colo. - With very little time to get to know players, Eve Soto never knows exactly what to expect when her Puerto Rico U18 team takes the field during the Triple Crown International Challenge.
What she saw during two games Friday at Christopher Fields saw pretty well with Soto in her second season coaching the team in the uniquely formatted tournament that features many players who will be in the Sparkler and Fireworks tournaments next week.
Puerto Rico took a U18 bronze medal in 2021 despite not winning any games in pool play, but got off to a 2-0 pool play start this time with a victory over Cuba (4-1) in its opener followed by an 11-6 defeat of the Netherlands that had a weather-related interlude in the late innings.
“Based on my previous experience with all these girls coming from all over the place, sometimes it's hit or miss,” Soto said. “We seem to have a good group that we can count on. A few of them we would love to work with them a little bit longer, but I have to make sure I give all of them a chance to play. This is a unique opportunity, that is the reason for this tournament.”
Soto has intimate knowledge of what it is like to represent her country, as she had an 11-year stint with the Puerto Rico national team and played for the country in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The International Challenge format gives high school players that are born in the United States with family ties another country or countries the chance to try out to make teams that represent those countries.
Andrea DeJesus (who plays with the San Jose Lady Sharks U18 team) applied for selection to the team from Puerto Rico — with that lineage on her father’s side of the family — and has enjoyed her short time with the team, which features players from several states who come together to compete with hardly any practice time.
“To be honest, we only had maybe an hour or hour-and-half to practice together,” said DeJesus, who had hits in all three of her at-bats and scored twice against the Netherlands. “Some of them came back from previous years and they know each other and everyone has gotten along very quickly. I’m happy I chose to do this and got picked. At first I was a little nervous because I didn’t know anybody, but when you are all the same heritage, it’s like a family already. It’s pretty cool. I want to do it again next year.”
While Soto is still learning the extent of the capabilities of her players, one trait is evident and abundant: speed.
It was on full display in the opening inning against the Netherlands, in which Puerto Rico sent nine hitters to the plate, collected four hits and scored six runs, all while taxing the defense with its legs and “running until one of the coaches stops them” according to Soto.
Five different players drove in runs — including a two-run single by Leilaniz Nieves — and DeJesus capped the inning when she broke late from third base and beat a relay throw home with headfirst slide for the sixth run.
Puerto Rico would be stymied by Netherlands pitcher Natalie Vitek for the next four innings, as Vitek began to use an effective change-up to keep it off balance. Meanwhile, Netherlands scored five runs against three Puerto Rico pitchers in the middle innings to make it a 6-5 game.
Though it didn’t figure in the end result of the game, Netherlands center fielder Zariya Anderson (who went 3-for-3 and homered) had the play of the day defensively in the fifth inning. A long pop-up squirted out of the glove of backpedaling shortstop Sienna Mayer, but Anderson backed up and dove to catch the ball before it hit the ground.
Puerto Rico finally came alive again offensively in the top of the sixth as DeJesus ignited a rally with a double that scored Macey Cintron to push the lead back to two runs. Leadoff hitter Luna Taboas struck a big blow later with a two-run single to make it 11-5.
That’s when the field was cleared for 20-plus minutes after lightning was detected in the area.
“During the delay of game, I was in the dugout and my Kansas family was texting me telling me they were watching and how proud they were of me,” said DeJesus, who drove in and scored runs in both big rallies for Puerto Rico.
With the hiatus, Soto replaced Cintron (who had a strong stint off relief) with Jazel Lopez, who surrendered Anderson’s solo home run with the wind gusting, but finished off the game.
Puerto Rico concludes pool play with an 8 a.m. Saturday contest against South Korea (1-1), which will determine where it ends up in the bracket as it chases a medal. Netherlands — which dropped its opener 6-1 to Cuba — has a noon contest against Japan (2-0).
“Usually the second day it gets better,” Soto said. “The players know where to back each other up and all the things that happen in a game, so I think it’s going to be much better for the girls, confidence-wise.”