AZUSA, Calif. -- They say the pressure doesn’t get to them; that it’s business as usual as they keep their focus, concentrate on the little things and just play the game.
And perhaps they’re right, for under the greatest of pressure they have responded, time and again over the final 4 weeks of the season.
The NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific scored 6 runs in the third inning and made them stand up as the Cougars held off a fast-charging Concordia University to beat the No. 10 Eagles, 7-5, in an elimination game of the GSAC Postseason Tournament.
“The girls handled the pressure of this game way better than I do,” said fourth-year Cougar Coach Carrie Webber. “They seem very calm, comfortable, and relaxed, like there isn’t a whole lot of pressure. I’m in the dugout, stressing out, trying to figure out what we’re going to do.”
With the victory Cougars win the 3-game series and advance to take on top-ranked California Baptist University in the GSAC Tournament championship series, another best 2-of-3 decision that will award the conference’s automatic berth into the NAIA Championship Tournament later this month.
However, tonight’s victory likely wrapped up no less than an NAIA Tournament at-large berth for Azusa Pacific, and thus it already had a magnitude attached to it as significant, if not more so, than the upcoming series with Cal Baptist. Had the Cougars lost tonight, they certainly would have dropped in next week’s final NAIA Top 25 Coaches Poll and been bounced from any further postseason consideration. As it was though, back-to-back home runs, including a 3-run blast by junior Erika Marmolejo, highlighted an unusual offensive outburst in what was an otherwise a hard-fought, closely-played 3-game series with Concordia.
Concordia won the first game of the day, beating Azusa Pacific, 6-2, to knot the series at 1 game apiece after the Cougars won the opening contest, 5-4, in extra innings last night. The Eagles scored 4 runs in the top of the seventh to snap a 2-2 tie that had stood for 3.5 innings of play. Bryanna Simpson’s bases-loaded double proved to be the difference that forced a third and deciding game.
In that contest, Brandi Andrews’ ground-out plated Olivia Wilcox, who had doubled to left-center to lead off the second inning, giving the Cougars a quick 1-0 lead.
In the third inning, the hits surprisingly kept coming off Concordia’s Morgan Reiter, who had pitched 3.1 innings of 1-hit relief in the earlier game tonight. A pair of singles and a pair of errors by Eagle left fielder Ashlee Leon produced 2 more runs and a 3-0 Cougar lead. Reiter then intentionally walked Wilcox, who was batting .450 with a pair of home runs off Concordia pitching over the past 2 weeks. However, Marmolejo made the Eagles pay for the pass to Wilcox by ripping Reiter’s first offering over the left field wall for her third home run of the season and a 6-0 Cougar lead.
“I was so relaxed, kind of laughing as I went to the plate,” said Marmolejo. “That was probably the third time this season they’ve walked Olivia to get to me. I knew she was going to pitch me inside, and when I made contact I knew the ball was out.”
That was it for Reiter, who was replaced in the circle by Jennifer Simons, but Andrews greeted her with another home run, a solo shot to cap the Cougar onslaught and give Azusa Pacific a surprising 7-0 lead heading into the bottom of the third.
Concordia didn’t fade away, and in fact, made the game interesting and nerve-wracking. In the bottom of the third, Amanda Fama slugged her second home run of the day and her 16th of the season, a 2-out, 2-run bomb off Cougar pitcher Taryn Devich, who was making her second start in 24 hours after throwing 121 pitches in first game of the series.
In the fifth, Devich wobbled again, loading the bases with 1 out by walking a batter and hitting 2 others. A 2-run single to center cut the Cougar lead to 7-4 and a sacrifice fly plated another run to pull the Eagles to within 2 at 7-5. With 2 on, Eagle right fielder Alicia Lucatero ripped a shot down the left field line that sophomore Heather Koch snagged at her knees on a dead sprint to end the inning and preserve the Cougar lead.
“I saw it curl out as it came off the bat, and I knew I had to get it otherwise the game would probably have been tied,” said Koch. “When I first caught it, I thought it was snow-coned or it was going to drop out of my glove, but I realized I had it, and at that moment I knew we would get this game.”
Devich seemingly was done for the night, but Webber would have nothing of it, asking her All-GSAC hurler to work one more inning, and in the bottom of the sixth, with the Cougars still clinging to a 2-run advantage, Devich produced a 1-2-3 inning, picking up her third strike out of the game in the process.
“Taryn started to feel tired in her forearm,” said Webber, “but she made a conscience effort and decision that she going to work hard, snap the ball off, and fight through it. It was all mental. Something switched in her and she knew she could do it.”
Devich’s success of the sixth afforded an extra opportunity, and she made good on it, allowing a 1-out infield single in the seventh before getting the final 2 Eagles to secure the victory and Azusa Pacific’s place in the GSAC Tournament championship series.
“The adjustments from the middle to the end of the game were more mental than physical,” said Devich. “I just had to focus more than I already was. I had to make sure that my hips stayed open, that I came through hard, and give it my all to help overcome my physical soreness and lack of control.”
Devich has won 4 straight now and is 10-2 over the past 6 weeks, running her season record to 14-7.
Wilcox, Marmolejo and Nicole Llorens all had 3 hits in the 2 games. Koch was 4-for-6 on the night to raise her season average to .303.
Since early April, Azusa Pacific has gone 12-3 with 6 victories over NAIA Top 10-ranked teams, and perhaps no single player better represents the Cougars’ recent charge than Koch, who is batting .341 in that span after producing a .181 clip through her first year-and-a-half in the program.
“I knew I had this in me, but it took awhile for it to come out,” said Koch. “I just needed a little spark to get going. When coach showed confidence me, she gave me a chance by starting me, and I had a good game, and it went from there.”
Now 32-19 on the season, Azusa Pacific heads to Riverside to visit California Baptist for a doubleheader Thursday (May 5) that begins at 5 p.m. If necessary, a third game will be played Friday (May 6) at 5 p.m. in Riverside as well.
“This was very evenly-matched, hard-fought series,” said Webber. “Our players are tired. They’re trying to get through finals. This is a bad week for this many games, but we’ll take one pitch and one play at a time. It’s going to be a physical and mental battle against Cal Baptist.”