GULF SHORES, Ala. -- After a 10-year hiatus, Azusa Pacific made its return to the NAIA Softball National Championship, and the Cougars commemorated the occasion with a 9-7 win over St. Thomas (Fla.) in the pool-play opener for both teams Thursday evening. Four players registered 3-hit performances in their first taste of national tournament experience, and a 5-run fourth inning gave Azusa Pacific enough of a cushion to withstand a St. Thomas comeback bid.
Senior third baseman Bekah Weisser broke the game open with her first of 2 doubles in the game, a bases-loaded, 1-out drive to left that gave the Cougars a 6-2 lead. She later scored on junior first baseman Erika Marmolejo’s 2-out, 2-run single to left that pushed the lead to 8-2.
St. Thomas, the automatic qualifier from The Sun Conference, answered with 2 runs in the bottom of the fourth along with another single run in the sixth that cut the lead to 8-5. Sophomore leftfielder Heather Koch drilled a double off the left-field wall that scored a valuable insurance run in the top of the seventh, and sophomore pitcher Rita Kim worked out of trouble with a pair of strikeouts after giving up consecutive hits and a wild pitch to start the frame.
Weisser and Marmolejo each tallied 3 hits and combined for 5 RBIs to lead the way for Azusa Pacific’s 9 runs and 16 hits of offense, and they were joined by 3-hit efforts from sophomore centerfielder Angie Sprague and sophomore catcher Jac Harkey. Koch was 2-for-3 with a run and her seventh-inning RBI double that was only a couple feet short of becoming what would have been her first collegiate home run.
The Cougars, who improved to 33-21 with the victory, continue with their second of 3 games in pool play Friday when they take on tournament host University of Mobile (Ala.) at 11:30 a.m. (CDT).