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Alabama Bound

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May 10, 2011
Gary Pine

AZUSA, Calif. -- For the first time in 11 years and the fourth time in program history, Azusa Pacific is headed to the NAIA Softball Championship Tournament.

The Cougars received word today from the NAIA national office that they had received the fourth and final at-large bid into the 32-team field of the NAIA Tournament, held May 19-25 at the Gulf Shores Sportsplex in Gulf Shores, Ala.

“It’s a very exciting day for all of us,” said fourth-year Azusa Pacific Head Coach Carrie Webber. “We were on pins and needles for this word to come out, knowing it would come down to the wire.”

Azusa Pacific, which is ranked No. 8 in the final NAIA Coaches Top 25 Poll and is taking a 32-21 record into the tournament, has come on strong over the final month of the season, winning 12 of its past 16 games, which includes 6 victories over Top 10-ranked teams.

“We were pretty streaky through the first two-thirds of the season,” said Webber, “but the girls have found their swings and are taking hard aggressive at-bats. Our pitchers are healthy, and it’s rather obvious, but once healthy you pitch better. Plus, I think they’ve gained confidence in the play behind them, and our defense allows them to pitch with ease. Everything starts to play hand-in-hand with one another when the team is playing well.”

Azusa Pacific is 1 of 2 teams from the Golden State Athletic Conference to qualify for the NAIA Tournament and 1 of 4 from California. GSAC champion and the NAIA’s top-ranked California Baptist is back in the NAIA Tournament for an eighth time. Cal State San Marcos, which like Azusa Pacific secured an at-large berth, is returning to the national tourney for a second consecutive year. Simpson University, from Redding, Calif., is also NAIA Tournament bound.

All-GSAC first baseman Erika Marmolejo, who is batting a team-high .309 on the season with 3 home runs, 6 doubles and 28 RBIs, spearheads an offense that is averaging 4 runs a game over the final month when the Cougars were in the teeth of the most challenging part of their schedule.

All-GSAC pitcher Taryn Devich, with her 14-8 record, heads a 3-lady staff that has been quite effective down the stretch as well.

Pool play assignments and the tournament schedule will be released from the national office on Wednesday (May10).

The last time the Cougars were in the NAIA Tournament they were playing for the national championship. In 2000, they made an amazing run to the title game, coming through the loser’s bracket by winning 5 straight games to advance into the program’s first-ever title game appearance. However, Oklahoma City University downed Azusa Pacific, 5-1, to take the crown as the Cougars walked away as the national runner-up.

In 1996 and again in 1997, Azusa Pacific finished fifth in the NAIA Tourney.

Azusa Pacific’s 21 losses are far and away the most by any team ranked in the Top 20 and were certainly a point of interest for the NAIA rating committee headed into the final poll. However, there was no denying the Cougars’ fine play during the month of April.

“If I thought about it long enough, I’d feel the pressure (of having to justify the Cougars’ place in the tournament field),” said Webber, “but I have confidence in the girls that we will play well in Alabama and validate those raters who voted for us.”