Last year, Cougar Athletics counted down the last 30 days of summer with the Cougar Countdown blog series, which contained 30 items of interest to Cougar fans leading into the 2012-13 school year. For the summer of 2013, Cougar Athletics takes a look back with a ranking of Azusa Pacific’s top 13 teams of all-time, which was compiled by the office of Sports Information with input from current and past coaches and administrators. The top 13 teams in Cougar Athletics history will be revealed one at a time each Thursday throughout the summer, culminating with the No. 1 team on August 22.MAY 30 -- No. 13: 2000 Softball
JUNE 6 -- No. 12: 2005 Men’s Tennis
JUNE 13 -- No. 11: 1985 Football
JUNE 20 -- No. 10: 1998 Men’s Basketball
JUNE 27 -- No. 9: 1983 Track & Field
JULY 4 -- No. 8: 2011 Women’s Basketball
JULY 11 -- No. 7: 1980 Volleyball
The countdown continues with the No. 6 team:
2007 Azusa Pacific Baseball
Final NAIA ranking: 9th
Jamming a career’s worth of incredible moments and thrilling highlights into one whirlwind season, the 2007 Azusa Pacific baseball team ended a 22-year NAIA World Series drought with a 51-10 season. Six year later, that team’s staggering success continues to resonate throughout the Cougar baseball program.
In addition to shattering the program’s previous record for wins in a season (40) with over a week left in the regular season, the Cougars won a conference-record 32 of 36 Golden State Athletic Conference games and posted the second-highest conference winning percentage (.889) in GSAC history. Led by an explosive offense that completely rewrote the program record book, Azusa Pacific went 44-5 in the regular season before coming from the loser’s bracket of the regional tournament to clinch the program’s first NAIA World Series berth since 1984.
Seniors Stephen Vogt and Scott Hodsdon, the2007 co-GSAC Players of the Year, set numerous records along the way, and the tandem became Azusa Pacific’s highest-drafted teammates since 1983 when they were selected within the first 12 rounds of that year’s Major League Baseball draft.
Vogt left Azusa Pacific with six career batting records along with four single-season marks, and Hodsdon collected four offensive single-season records to go with his role as the Cougars’ pitching ace. Vogt’s team-high .476 batting average was one point off the school record, but his school-record 26 doubles led the NAIA that year. Hodsdon smashed 26 home runs with 100 RBIs, both school-records at the time, and he was 10-1 with seven saves and a team-leading 3.17 ERA. His three shutouts tied the program’s single-season record, and during one midseason stretch he fired 34 consecutive scoreless innings.
“That team had leaders like Stephen Vogt and Scott Hodsdon in the clubhouse and on the baseball field, who had lived through some tough times as athletes and worked their way through the system,” Azusa Pacific baseball head coach Paul Svagdis said. “They were refined by a lot of adversity, so what I remember most fondly is seeing those two guys realize the level of success they certainly deserved during their four years here through the leadership they brought to the team.”
Together, they formed the heart of the lineup and the soul of a team whose strength was on display from the beginning of the schedule with a 10-game season-opening win streak that made the program’s 24-25 2006 season a distant memory. In the first 10 games alone, Azusa Pacific scored 129 runs, and the Cougars bounced right back from their first loss, a 5-4 defeat to Fresno Pacific, with another seven-game winning streak.
”The biggest memory for me about that team is the way it all came together,” Vogt said. “Our 2006 team struggled and was missing a lot of parts and pieces. We still felt good about 2007, and to have all the pieces come together the way they did, with Scott emerging as one of the best pitchers in the nation, it was almost magical the way our team came together. From top to bottom, everybody had one goal, and that was to win, and we realized pretty early that getting off to a start like that helped everybody recognize this was a different year, a different season, and something special was going on.”
After hitting a midseason stretch with three defeats in six games, Azusa Pacific held on for an 8-6 non-conference win over Dixie State, a game which Hodsdon closed out with a three-strikeout inning for his second save of the year. That victory was followed by a crucial St. Patrick’s Day road doubleheader at GSAC rival Concordia, which was coming off a World Series appearance of its own the previous year. In the opener, Vogt’s seventh-inning solo home run in a one-run ballgame gave the Cougars the extra cushion they needed for Hodsdon to strike out four in 2.2 innings of hitless relief to preserve a 6-5 win. Azusa Pacific finished off the sweep with an exclamation point, jumping out to a 12-0 lead and winning game two, 16-2.
“Although we had thought we could be pretty special, to really forecast yourself as being the first team in 23 years to go to the World Series wasn’t really at the forefront of our thinking,” Svagdis said. “About halfway through, a lot of the players started to believe it. At that point it was something that became a reality for these guys, and they worked even harder for it.”
That doubleheader sweep became the turning point of the Cougars’ storybook season – Azusa Pacific wouldn’t lose another game until the very last day of the regular season, piling up a program-record 24-game winning streak. Included in that run was a victory that didn’t count in the standings – a 5-4 exhibition-game win over the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, the Class A Advanced affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
“I think winning, and winning consistently, builds a level of confidence for the players that no matter what the score or the inning is, as long as you have an out left on the board, everybody’s confident,” Svagdis said. “As players, that was a group-think that was created because they started to get rolling as a team. It sounds like coach-speak, but I would walk out every weekend facing a new conference opponent, and they were all tough; my focus was on the next opponent and what we needed to do to prepare ourselves to beat them. In terms of win streaks, the only time I thought about it was the last game of the season, and it’s ironic because we lost that game.”
The streak also included a memorable week for Vogt, who proposed to his girlfriend the night before Azusa Pacific’s two-game home series with Concordia. With his fiancée watching from the stands, Vogt hit his first career grand slam, one of four career-firsts in a 10-2 win over the Eagles, and he followed that the very next day with a walk-off solo home run in an 11-10 extra-innings victory. In the two-game series, Vogt was 7-for-9 with three doubles, three home runs, and nine RBIs.
”Those three days are the days I talk about the most when other players ask me about college,” Vogt said. “That season culminated everything in my life, and those four months were the happiest months of my life. That was the best year of my life in terms of fun and memorable times, and for those three days, getting engaged and knowing I was going to get married to the woman I love, to having great personal nights on the field and sweep Concordia for two great wins in doing so, you can’t say enough about those three days.”
Azusa Pacific had to come from behind in the late innings to win its regional playoff opener, although Kirk Nieuwenhuis’ six-RBI performance in a 14-2 win over Point Loma seemed to put the Cougars back on track to cruise through the winner’s bracket of the six-team tournament. However, Concordia, the defending regional champion, pounded the GSAC regular-season champs for 11 runs before the Cougars mustered some offense in the late innings of an 11-4 defeat that put the brilliant season just one game away from an early, disappointing end.
“Getting beat the way we did was definitely eye-opening, but I just went home that night thinking about how baseball is an amazing game – you can go through a season and win 24 straight games, you can beat a quality opponent all four times you play in the regular season, and now you go into the winner’s bracket and have to beat them a fifth time,” Svagdis remembered.
“My college coach would talk about the playoffs like the bonus ball in a pinball game. Whenever that bonus ball pops out, you play it freely because you didn’t have to pay for it. I wanted the guys to play freely, so I told them that story after we lost and gave each of them a pinball. The players recognized that their job was just to go out and play as hard as they could, and that pinball would just keep bouncing if it was meant to be.”
Hodsdon answered by hurling a four-hit complete-game shutout against Biola, striking out nine and allowing just two runners to reach second base in the 5-0 win. Freshman first baseman Brice Cutspec homered twice, driving in four of the five runs in the game, advancing the Cougars to the championship against Concordia, which it would need to beat twice for the regional title.
After a come-from-behind 7-3 win in the opener, with Hodsdon firing two perfect innings for the save, Azusa Pacific jumped to a 4-0 lead and held on behind two more perfect innings of relief from Hodsdon. The 9-5 victory meant Azusa Pacific was headed to the NAIA World Series for the first time since 1984.
“How do you even explain Scott going nine complete shutout innings in a night game to get you into the championship, then closing out the next two games to get the championship?” Svagdis asked. “He threw 14 innings in a 24-hour period and gave up zero runs. I’ll never forget that, and I know that I would have had to pull him off the field in those moments because he wanted so badly to be out there.”
Azusa Pacific’s No. 2 national ranking assured the Cougars of an at-large berth in the 10-team NAIA World Series, regardless of the outcome of the best-of-three super regional series it hosted against the NAIA’s top-ranked defending national champion Lewis-Clark State.
“I wish that Super Regional could have been a little more important – I think we all did,” Vogt recalled. “We knew going into it that it was just a test for the World Series, but those were the two best teams in the country going at it for three games, and a lot of people thought that would be the preview of the national championship. There was a World Series type of atmosphere; people drove hours to come watch that series. You had so many talented players on the field, and there wasn’t a single player on the field who didn’t want to win that series. I’d be surprised if there was ever an opportunity to see a series between two NAIA teams with as much talent on the field.”
Counting Vogt and Hodsdon, the two teams combined to produce 15 eventual MLB draftees, including Lewis-Clark State’s Beau Mills, who was named the NAIA Player of the Year before being selected with the 13th overall pick of the 2007 draft. Two more players, one from each team, would also sign with MLB teams as undrafted free agents following their playing career, putting 17 future professional baseball players on the field for a thrilling three-game series that provided 72 runs of offense between the NAIA’s top national title contenders.
“The super regional here was a series I’ll always remember,” Svagdis said. “That was a big-time slugfest against what I think was the best NAIA team in history. They came down to our yard and we played all three games in a fashion where you didn’t know who was going to win at the end. You want to play the best and see how you match up, so even though there wasn’t a lot on the line in terms of a World Series berth, there was a lot of athletic competitiveness on the line.”
Although Lewis-Clark State emerged from the battle with a pair of wins in three games, it was the Cougars who made the bigger statement, out-performing the top-ranked Warriors in runs (38-34), hits (51-47), extra-base hits (15-10), batting average (.408-.398), and doing so against a pitching staff which featured five future pro pitchers. In fact, the combined series ERA of Lewis-Clark State’s five eventual pros was a whopping 11.66.
“That series was a lot of fun because we were out of school, and it was the first time we had nothing but baseball to worry about,” Nieuwenhuis said. “We got pretty close then, because it was a lot of fun to be around the guys all the time and just ride the high from the regional tournament. We all felt like little kids again; we were out of school and all we had to think about was baseball.”
Azusa Pacific was awarded the No. 1 seed for the NAIA World Series (by rule, Lewis-Clark State as the World Series host could be seeded no higher than third), meaning the Cougars wouldn’t play its first World Series game until two of the 10 participating teams had already been sent home from the double-elimination tournament.
“We had a lot of fun, and it started with the leadership we got from Vogt and Hodsdon,” Nieuwenhuis said. “That group of seniors had great leaders, and we just had a lot of fun. I remember playing ‘rock ball’ at the World Series – we had the whole team out in an empty lot by our hotel on one of our off days, just hitting rocks with sticks. We all just loved to play together, and we went out there every day with the confidence to know we should win.”
By the time that happened, Azusa Pacific’s 7 p.m. matchup with eighth-seeded Lindenwood had already been delayed by two hours due to an extra-inning contest earlier in the day. It took five innings for the Cougar offense to warm up, but once it did it put up nine quick runs in just two innings to take a 9-7 lead after six innings. Lindenwood then surged ahead with a six-run eighth, scoring four of its six with two outs in the frame. The disappointing defeat dropped Azusa Pacific into the loser’s bracket, where the Cougars rolled out to a 7-0 lead before surviving a ninth-inning rally from Lee (Tenn.). Jonny Bravo, who struck out 10 in eight shutout innings before surrendering three of the four runs in the ninth, gave way to Hodsdon for the final two outs to preserve the victory.
“Aside from the talent level of that team physically, we spent a lot of time those years with assistant coach Mike Price about learning how to control the controllable, having positive self-talk, and learning how to control your mental environment,” Svagdis said. “Although the talent was there, I think what really put that group over the edge was their ability to learn from adversity and have the confidence the next day to overcome it.”
The next day, the Cougars put runners on base in all but one inning, but an offense that scored in bunches throughout the year managed just one run on 10 hits against Houston Baptist and its southpaw pitcher Jay Prigmore, who carried a shutout into the eighth inning. But not even a 5-1 lead with two outs in the ninth felt safe against Azusa Pacific, especially not with Vogt stepping to the plate with the bases loaded. Off the bat, Vogt’s liner to the right-center field gap might have gone for extra bases and put the tying run in scoring position for Hodsdon, but Vogt’s drive was snagged on the run by the Houston Baptist centerfielder to halt the Cougars’ World Series run.
Despite the defeat, the legend of ’07 Baseball continues to grow, as Vogt and Nieuwenhuis have both turned their professional opportunities into the realization of their big-league dreams. Nieuwenhuis, selected in the third round of the 2008 draft by the New York Mets, has spent the majority of the past two seasons patrolling the outfield for the Mets after making his MLB debut in the opening week of the 2012 season. Vogt got his MLB call-up for Tampa Bay, also in the opening week of the 2012 season, and this year he picked up his first major-league hit, a solo home run at that, for the Oakland A’s on June 28, 2013.
“None of us were preoccupied with the draft or anything like that,” Nieuwenhuis recalled. “Vogt and Hodsdon were draft-eligible that year, but they didn’t let any of that come into the clubhouse. We were all so focused on having fun, being in the moment , enjoying our teammates and the success we were having, we didn’t really think about it. We all aspired to play beyond college, but that’s not really something we were dwelling on, because I think at that point we were just having so much fun together.”
Although the lineup featured NAIA All-American first teamers Vogt and Hodsdon, the first-ever four-year Cougars to earn first team honors in the same season, the special season was filled with contributions throughout the roster.
“That 2007 team had 35 great men on it, and to be considered the cornerstone year of the program is well-deserved, because we had such great people and players on that team,” Vogt said. “To be a part of Azusa Pacific baseball in itself is an honor, but to be a part of one of the greatest teams in that program’s history is an even greater honor.”
Vogt and Hodsdon were two of the four seniors who’d played all four years of their college careers at Azusa Pacific. Left-handed pitcher Brad Boekestein helped solidify the starting rotation behind Hodsdon and Bravo, winning his first six decisions without taking a loss until the super regional round. He finished his career with three perfect innings against Houston Baptist in the World Series, which allowed the Cougars to stay within reach late in the elimination game. Infielder Johnny Soberal batted .234 in the regular season and appeared in just one game of the regional tournament, but when his opportunity for a start at third base came around in the second game of the super regional, he laid down a sacrifice bunt, delivered an RBI double, and was hit by pitch in his three plate appearances. He went two-for-three coming off the bench the next day, earning the start at third base for the World Series opener.
“To see four seniors impact the regular season and postseason in the way they did is what sticks out in my mind,” Svagdis said. “That was a group of four kids who made it through from a freshman class of 12 players. They stuck it out and were loyal to the process, and I can’t say how proud I am of those four and the leadership they provided through some tough times. To see them come through the other side was very satisfying because you want that for them.”
Beyond the leadership of the senior class, the campaign was highlighted by the postseason emergence of Nieuwenhuis as a future star, as the sophomore outfielder batted .479 throughout the playoffs with four home runs and 15 RBIs. Batting behind Nieuwenhuis was true freshman Brice Cutspec, whose raw power led to 19 home runs as a freshman to start a career in which he would go on to break the NAIA career home run record.
“There’s a great sense of pride for me to be a part of a season like that and be on the same team as guys like Vogt and Hodsdon,” Nieuwenhuis said. “To see that transformation from (24-25) my first year to consecutive World Series was pretty cool, and it does give me a sense of pride to look back and realize I was a part of that. When we go back now and look around the locker room and meet the team, it’s always fun just to hang out with the guys and watch how they jell and come together as a team, and to see that environment we experienced continue on.”
Junior shortstop Matt Venegas was a spark plug at the top of the batting order, batting .364 on the year, and a year later, he won GSAC Player of the Year honors as he helped lead the Cougars back to the World Series for a second consecutive year. Fellow middle infielders Grant Beyer and Galen Komo enthusiastically shared a unique role as “co-starters” at second base. Beyer often started games and batted second, posting a season batting average of .390, but he would give way without complaint in the middle innings to Komo, who posted a .974 fielding percentage in the postseason.
“Not once did Beyer or Komo question the role,” Svagdis said. “The legacy of selflessness those two guys left our baseball program with has been phenomenal. It’s a great teaching tool as a coach, to show Beyer as a career .385 hitter who would encourage his counterpart to close out the game for us at that position. I think it’s a great act of selflessness in being soldiers to a process, and the way those two guys embraced their roles represents everything we want in coaching.”
Hodsdon was the star of the pitching staff, winning his final eight decisions of the year after taking the loss in Azusa Pacific’s first defeat of the year, and Bravo went 12-0 to become the only Cougar pitcher in program history to win 12 games without a loss. Bravo, drafted in 2008 by the St. Louis Cardinals, was the winning pitcher in both of Azusa Pacific’s World Series wins during 2007 and 2008. Junior righthander Ryan Zaft, who kept the Cougars alive in the regional with the first of two wins over Concordia in the championship doubleheader, wasn’t charged with a loss until the World Series, finishing the year 6-1. The trio combined for all seven of Azusa Pacific’s postseason victories.
Five hitters smashed 10 or more home runs, led by Hodsdon’s school-record 26. Sophomore leftfielder Stephen Gillette hit 17 home runs, while Cutspec finished with 19, Vogt 14, and Nieuwenhuis 10. Hodsdon, Vogt, and Nieuwenhuis each added 22 or more doubles. The offense set the program single-season records for hits, runs, home runs, and RBIs.
“Everything we do in recruiting is not necessarily to mimic that year, but there isn’t a day that goes by where a recruit is not referred to as one of those 2007 players,” Svagdis said. “At the end of the day, you sit back and want that to be the dynamic that you emulate year in and year out.”