With two days down and three quality wins under its belt, the Puerto Rico U16 team has everything it wanted in front of it.
Coach Willie Viruet’s group followed up a 2-0 opening day at the Triple Crown International Challenge with a hard-fought 5-2 victory over Greece Saturday at Christopher Fields to complete a perfect run through pool play and set itself up for a run at gold Sunday.
Like all teams in the tournament, Puerto Rico came in with hardly any practice time and chemistry mostly formed over Zoom meetings, but has consistently bonded during its winning start and played an outstanding game that was boosted by the music played by its fans for all five innings.
“We gelled pretty quickly, but its a lot easier now,” said pitcher Yessenia Lopez, who pitched the final two innings of the victory. “We’ve had lunches and breakfasts together and we’re constantly together now, so that helps a lot, too. Today it was very smooth and very easy. There’s no nerves, we’re good now. It’s just going out and playing.”
With a lot of the chemistry things worked out in victories over Canada (3-0), Israel (5-4) and now Greece, Puerto Rico has put itself in a position to better the bronze medal it won last year in the first year of the tournament. It is scheduled for a 10 a.m. Saturday game with Italy.
“This group is special,” Viruet said. “We were successful last year winning the bronze medal, but we have different goals. Putting ourselves in the gold medal bracket is really, really important, not only to use, but to our parents and those that are following us on the island. It’s a really, really big deal.”
Much like the Puerto Rico team that is playing well in the U18 bracket, the U16 team has abundant speed and is taking to the coaching staff’s aggressive philosophy.
Leadoff hitter Jasmine Green — who reached base and scored in all three of her plate appearances — and Natalie Brignoni drew back-to-back walks and later executed a double steal with Green scoring as Brignoni stole second.
Maya Soto then drove in Brignoni with a single and went all the way to third base on the throw home, coming in on Kiana Cruz-Flores’ single.
Just like that, it was 3-0 and Puerto Rico had set a tone.
“We’re trying to take chances and force the issue; that’s my style anyway,” Viruet said. “I think it’s important to do in international play. Sometimes they have to make the play. If they make the play, you tip your hat and move on. But I do want to steal bases, bunt and put the defense in stressful situations.”
Puerto Rico’s aggressiveness was costly at times as it had a runner picked off, had another caught stealing and another thrown out at third base trying to stretch a double into a triple. But for the most part, it paid off.
In the end, the first inning rally proved to be enough to hold off a Greece team that came in off pool play wins over Israel (6-2) and Canada (11-3).
It looked like Greece would hang offensively as Leah Jannakos cranked a two-run home run in the bottom of the first inning to immediately cut into the deficit, but that would be all it would muster against the duo of starter Sydney Shaffer and Lopez.
Lopez came on after the first hitter of the fourth inning reached against Shaffer and immediately induced a groundball to shortstop Rio Mendez, who started a 6-4-3 double play, which Lopez followed with a strikeout to end the inning.
“It’s a big lift, especially being able to let my defense do it and know you don’t have to strike out three to get out of the inning,” Lopez said. “The double play was really big and a momentum-grabber. It was awesome.”
Lopez — who said she benefited from her older sister calling the pitches, as she does with Lopez’s Florida Gold team that is set to play in the upcoming Sparkler Tournament — struck out three hitters in a row in the bottom of fifth inning as the game came to an end after it reached its time limit.
Puerto Rico added single runs in the second and fourth innings, which were both scored by Green and both in opportunistic situations.
A throwing error with two outs in the second allowed Green to score and she came home one pitch later on a single by Brignoni, who was thrown out trying to take second. In the fourth, Green reached on a fielders choice when Puerto Rico’s lead runner collided with Greece’s shortstop and she came home on Brignoni’s double.
Viruet is looking forward to seeing what is possible on the final day.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good situation, we just have to take advantage of it,” he said.
Added Lopez: “It doesn’t feel real that we could potentially win a gold medal. It’s insane to even think about, but we’ll see. We just have to go out there and play.”