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Here Come the Cougars

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April 19, 2011
Gary Pine
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AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific may be Alabama-bound and headed for the NAIA Championship Tournament. There is still a lot of work ahead of the Cougars, but tonight they produced the most significant sweep in the past 6 years of the program and as a result strengthened their position for a possible NAIA bid next month.

The NAIA’s No. 16-ranked Azusa Pacific displayed remarkable resiliency and rallied twice to win a pair of 1-run games over No. 4 Concordia, taking the first game, 6-5 in 9 innings, and winning the nightcap, 2-1.

While the sweep pushes the Cougars’ winning streak to 7 straight and moves them to within a game of hosting a bracket of the GSAC Postseason Tournament, it has greater ramifications on a national level. The sweep puts Azusa Pacific in contention for 1 of 6 NAIA at-large bids awarded after the conference tournament. Indeed, there is plenty of softball still to be played, but the Cougars are thrilled to be in this position this late in April. It hasn’t been this way since 2005.

Junior first baseman Erika Marmolejo went 4-for-7 on the day with 3 RBIs and had a crucial hit in both contests, including a 2-run home run in the second game to propel the Cougars to their first sweep of Concordia since 2008.

In the opening game, the Cougars were 1 out away from a 2-0 victory, they let it slip through their hands when Bryanna Simpson slugged a 3-run home run with 2 outs in the top of the seventh inning to give the Eagles a stunning 3-2 lead.

Undaunted by the turn of events, the Cougars answered in their half of the seventh when senior Nicole Llorens singled home Angela Sprague with 2 outs to knot the score at 3-all and send the game into extra innings.

It was the first of 3 straight answers produced by Azusa Pacific after Concordia took 1-run leads in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

After Concordia assumed a 4-3 lead in the top the eighth, Azusa Pacific answered again with a Marmolejo single that tied the game at 4-4. In the ninth, the Eagles scored to go up 5-4, but again Azusa Pacific answered, first when pinch runner Rita Kim scored from third, beating a throw home on a grounder to first. Then with the bases loaded, Bekah Weisser lined a 1-out single to left that scored Natalie Barnaby from third base with the game-ending run.

In the second game, Concordia scored an unearned run in the third inning to take a 1-0 lead, but Azusa Pacific, which couldn’t cash in on scoring opportunities in the first and second innings, turned the game on one swing. Marmolejo launched her second home run of the season, a 2-run blast over the wall in right-centerfield, scoring as well Olivia Wilcox, who had just doubled to right-center in the previous at-bat.

That was all sophomore pitcher Mariah Worley needed as she retired 14 of the final 16 batters she faced to win for the third straight time and move her record to 10-5 on the season. While Worley struggled with control – she walked a season-high 4 batters – she did strike out 6, a GSAC high for her this season.

In all, Azusa Pacific rallied 4 times from 1-run deficits on the night.

Weisser finished the doubleheader 3-for-8 with a run, an RBI and a double. She has hit safely in 5 of the past 6 games. Heather Koch had her 5-game hitting streak snapped but she still when 2-for-4 with a double a run and an RBI.

With the sweep, Azusa Pacific improves to 27-17 overall, 12-6 in the GSAC. Concordia falls to 45-9 overall, 13-5 in the GSAC.

Next on the docket for Azusa Pacific is No.3 Cal State San Marcos, who the Cougars host in a nonconference twin bill next Tuesday (April 26). They return to GSAC play and close out the regular season on Thursday (April 28) at home against Biola. Both doubleheaders start at 4 p.m.

And while the Cougars will be gunning for an NAIA Tournament bid and a high seed in the GSAC Postseason Tournament, they’ll also have their sights set on the program’s first 30-win campaign since 2005. Aiding their cause will be the fact that both games are at home where the Cougars are 17-5 this season and have won 14 of their past 15, losing only to the NAIA’s top-ranked California Baptist University.