GULF SHORES, Ala. -- By the time the NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific wrapped up the opening day of pool play at the 2012 NAIA Softball National Championship, there weren’t many other teams left at the Gulf Shores Sportsplex to see the 15-0 victory the Cougars put together against William Penn (Iowa).
However, once they get a chance to see the tournament results board, there will plenty of eyes opened and taking notice of the Cougars the rest of the way, as no other team scored more than 10 runs on the opening day of tournament play, and only one besides Azusa Pacific scored more than eight.
“I don’t know that our team senses a lot of expectation – they’re just very focused on what they need to do,” Cougar head coach Carrie Webber said. “I don’t think they get too caught up in what other things are going on; they’re just concerned with what’s going on now, and I think it was important for them to make a statement early in this tournament.”
The Cougars scored their first 11 runs of the day with two outs, including Brandi Andrews’ third-inning grand slam, which pushed the lead to 11-0. Andrews went three-for-four with five RBIs, tying the NAIA Tournament record for doubles in a game (two) and coming within two of the tournament’s single-game records for RBIs and total bases with five RBIs and eight total bases.
“Knowing that you’re playing for all the other girls on your team helps make a game like this really fun,” Andrews said. “Being able to perform like this for them, and having such a great defense to shut them down so we can go do some more – it’s just made it a really fun season. Being able to pull this off in the first game really feels good.”
Junior catcher Jac Harkey also tallied three hits, all singles, in a three-for-three effort, to lead the Cougars’ 15-run, 13-hit attack. Pitchers Rita Kim and Mariah Worley combined on a three-hit shutout, Azusa Pacific’s first in national tournament play since the 2000 Cougars shut out five foes en route to a national runner-up finish. Kim struck out four and walked just one, tossing four innings of three-hit ball to pick up the win and improve to 15-3 on the year, while Worley got three straight groundouts in the fifth to end the game.
The victory was Azusa Pacific’s eighth shutout in national-tournament play, and the Cougars’ 15-run outburst tied the program’s highest scoring total in a game since a 16-8 win over Southern Oregon in just the second game of Webber’s five-year coaching career at Azusa Pacific. Earlier this season, the Cougars also scored 15 in a non-conference win over British Columbia.
“I was encouraged by everything we did today,” Webber said. “We played defense well, we hit the ball well, and even though Rita wasn’t completely on her game, she still battled and fought, and we played good defense behind her. It was a total team effort, and it was nice to see that cohesiveness in the first game of the tournament.”
In Thursday’s pool play opener, which was the last scheduled game to start, William Penn made a pair of crucial errors that contributed to a three-run first inning for the Cougars. The Lady Statesmen made two more errors in the second inning, the first of which was a dropped fly ball that would have gotten William Penn a scoreless second inning. Instead, Erika Marmolejo and Andrews followed with back-to-back run-scoring hits, and Andrews scored on a passed ball to cap a four-run frame.
“You couldn’t ask for a better start to the tournament,” Webber said. “We only scored 15 runs in a game once all year, and this was just relentless. They brought in three pitchers, and we were able to time them and make our adjustments against all three pitchers. It was really nice to see them jump on it in the first inning instead of waiting to get into that groove. They hit well in practice this week and again in pre-game, and it just translated into the game.”
In the third, starting pitcher Jennifer Whitehead walked issued three consecutive two-out walks to load the bases for Andrews, who drove her 11th home run of the year over the left-field fence for another four-run frame and an 11-0 lead. Rachel Miller, Angie Sprague, and Olivia Wilcox each had extra-base hits to highlight a three-run fourth inning, and Miller’s sacrifice fly in the fifth inning scored Andrews, who led off the inning with her second double of the game.
The dominant performance was a far cry from the opener in pool play a year ago, when the Cougars jumped out to an 8-2 lead against unranked St. Thomas (Fla.) but had to hang on late to survive with a 9-7 win, which turned out to be Azusa Pacific’s only win in three pool play contests. This time around, the Cougars scored in all five innings, with 13 of the 15 runs coming with two outs in the inning.
“I think last year we were a little more content with just making it here,” Andrews recalled. “This year we developed more as a team and learned how to play together. We have so much confidence and faith in each other. We know that no matter who’s up with two outs or whatever the situation might be, we know they’ll do well. If not, we know our pitchers and defense will give us another opportunity.”
Andrews and Harkey led the way with three hits apiece, while Marmolejo and Sprague added two hits each, and three different Cougars (Wilcox, Marmolejo, Andrews) each scored three runs. William Penn was led by Molly Miller, who recorded two of her team’s three total hits in the game for the champions of the Midwest Collegiate Conference.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 41-10 overall, while William Penn drops to 46-17. Pool play resumes Friday, with the Cougars taking on No. 18-ranked Auburn Montgomery (Ala.) at 11:30 a.m. (CDT) and William Penn facing No. 9 Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) at 4:30 p.m.