AZUSA, Mo. – Nicole Llorens wasn’t supposed to be here. Not in this moment, with a bat in her hand and the game on the line.
Llorens, a sophomore student at Azusa Pacific, walked away from softball nearly 2 years ago, burned out on the 24/7 atmosphere of travel ball, and as recent as 3 months ago she was vowing to never return. She wanted to experience other things in life, but when Azusa Pacific head coach Carrie Webber caught a glimpse of Llorens’ skill in a recreation class late last fall, she invited her to try out for the Cougar team.
Prodded by her father, Nicole accepted the invitation, and a month later she was on the team, figuring to be a reserve, an extra body for practice, a fill in at any spot in the field, a walk-on without a scholarship.
This afternoon, she was as far from those expectations as she was from her previous plans to never play softball again. She was instead producing a walk-off single.
Llorens capped a perfect 4-for-4 effort at the plate with a lined 0-2 offering off the pitcher’s glove to send home the game-winning run and lift unranked Azusa Pacific to an extra-inning 5-4 victory and a stunning sweep of the NAIA’s No. 19-ranked Concordia University Saturday afternoon at the Cougar Softball Complex. Azusa Pacific won the first game, 5-2.
“I like being in clutch situations,” said Llorens. “It’s pressure but it’s fun. The key for me was that instead of hoping I’d hit the ball, I felt that every time I was going to get a single, even on the last at-bat. I saw the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand every time.”
Llorens’ single that scored Bethany Weisser completed a wild comeback in which Azusa Pacific twice had to rally from a 4-2 deficit late in the game. In the bottom of the sixth inning Jenn Whitten hit a single up the middle that scored Bailey Blazek and Llorens to apparently tie the game at 4-4. However, the home plate umpire ruled that Whitten was out of the batter’s box and thus was called out, sending both runners back. Blazek eventually scored on wild pitch to pull the Cougars to within a run at 4-3 but that was all Azusa Pacific got in the sixth.
In the bottom of the seventh, Concordia was 1 strike away from gaining a much-needed split, but Weisser ripped an 0-2 pitch up the middle to score Camille Hundley from second base and tie the game to force extra innings.
In the top of the eighth, Cougar reliever Jeanette Murad got out of the inning unscathed thanks in part to a nifty play by third baseman Natalie Mickelson, who snagged a line shot to end the inning and leave the go-ahead run stranded at third base.
Weisser took second to open the bottom of the eighth and moved to third on a sacrifice, setting up Llorens’ game-winning single. Llorens quickly fell behind 0-2 in the count and then fouled off 4 pitches before lining a pitch back up the middle that Concordia reliever Laura Wiens deflected off her glove and toward shortstop Caitlyn Senkbeil, who gathered the ball but had no play as Weisser sprinted home with the game winning run.
“I can’t stop smiling,” said Llorens. “I love this team, and it was one of the best decisions of my life to come back to softball and this program. This is a team is coming together, and to see in everyone’s eyes the excitement of this year is pretty neat.”
Azusa Pacific took control of the first game with a 3-run third inning and only an spectacular diving catch by Senkbeil off a Weisser rocket kept the Cougars from scoring more. Erin Halma’s 2-out, 2-run single to leftfield scored Blazek and Cassie Treischel to give the Cougars’ a 3-0 lead.
Concordia answered with a pair of runs in the top of the fourth, but that was all they’d get off Hundley, who retired 11 of the final 12 batters she faced to pick up her team-leading ninth win in 16 decisions this year. She struck out 7 and walked 2 while yielding just 1 earned run in recording her 13th complete-game performance.
Azusa Pacific added a pair of insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth. Treischel singled through the right side of the infield to push Erika Navarrete across for a run, and Llorens scored on a ground out to complete the scoring.
With the sweep, Azusa Pacific’s first over Concordia in 7 years, the Cougars vault into third place in the GSAC and into the thick of a race for its first postseason berth in 4 years.
“We’ve been working on building up the girls and telling them they were good and that they could do this,” said Webber. “The hardest part was making them believe it, but now they have proved it to themselves.”
Azusa Pacific had 20 hits on the day. Navarrete, who came into the season a .255 lifetime hitter, was 3-for-4 in the second game to raise her GSAC-only batting average to a team-high .394 (13-for-33). Halma was 3-for-6 for the 2 games with 3 RBIs. Treischel went 3-for-8 and pushed her hitting streak to a modest 6 games.
“One through nine, our line-up is very solid,” said Webber. “I don’t get to the bottom of our line-up and think we’re doomed. I have confidence in this line-up. It has a lot of punch.”
Murad picked up the win in the second game to go to 2-3 on the season. She averted trouble after coming on in relief and throwing 6 straight balls to load the bases in the top of the sixth. She struck out 3 of the next 7 batters she faced to keep Concordia from scoring more and allowing Azusa Pacific to rally to tie the game.
“We put her in there kind of cold,” said Webber, “and it took her a while to get her footing, but Jeanette is a competitor and has a lot of tenacity.”
Azusa Pacific improves to 17-16 on the season, 7-5 in the GSAC while Concordia falls to 29-12 overall, 3-7 in the GSAC.