AZUSA, Calif. -- With consecutive national tournament appearances to build on, Azusa Pacific’s softball team was built to send off its huge senior class with a serious run at a national title. The timing of Azusa Pacific‘s new conference membership and national affiliation has altered that plan.
Yet the path still leads to something unprecedented for the Cougars, who get the first opportunity to set the bar for Azusa Pacific’s Division II success in the program’s first season of D-II competition.
Leading the way among the Cougars’ 10-player group of returning seniors are a pair of returning all-conference players who were voted Preseason All-Pacific West Conference prior to the start of the season by PacWest coaches, who also selected the Cougars to finish fifth out of 12 teams in the preseason conference coaches poll.
“The 10 returning seniors are a very special class to me,” Azusa Pacific head coach Carrie Webber said. “They’ve learned a lot from the previous seniors, and they’re very anxious to leave their mark this year for the teams to come. It’s been an honor to watch them grow the past four years. They’ve done a great job getting us to nationals the past few years, so it’s really nice to be able to sit back and watch them finish out their career by letting them be the players they’ve developed into.”
Senior outfielder Brandi Andrews leads the returning offense after batting .421 (69-for-164) with team-highs in doubles (18), home runs (11), and RBIs (64) last season, and she earned one of the three preseason All-PacWest outfield spots. The Cougars also bring back a senior pitching trio that includes another preseason all-conference honoree in Rita Kim. One of just two pitchers named to the team, Kim went 16-4 last season with a 1.89 ERA, striking out 101 in 107.2 innings.
Within Webber’s returning 10-senior class are nine players who joined the softball program as true freshmen back in 2010, including four-year starters Angie Sprague, Rachel Miller, and Jac Harkey. Andrews and Heather Koch are both three-year starters for Azusa Pacific, which returns two-thirds of last year’s regular starting lineup.
But the most obvious strength of the Cougars in 2013 is the standout pitching trio of Kim, Taryn Devich, and Mariah Worley. Together, those three have started all but six games in the circle over the past three years, combining for all but 35 innings pitched since 2010. In all, the trio has fashioned a combined 98-53 record and 1.92 ERA in just over 1,000 innings pitched in three years. Last season, all three finished the year with an ERA below 2.00 and at least 12 wins each.
“I’m excited to watch our seniors finish out their career,” Webber said. “It’s bittersweet because while you hate to see them go, it’s also the end of a journey that started four years ago without knowing how it was going to end. I’m excited to see how they respond to this new challenge of going into a new conference. It’s a new challenge and a new journey that’s exciting because it’s the unknown, and we’ll enjoy the challenge each and every day.”
Each of the returning pitchers led the staff in different areas a year ago. Rita Kim led the group with 16 wins and 101 strikeouts, while Mariah Worley posted the lowest ERA (1.27) and Taryn Devich notched team-highs in complete games (11) and shutouts (7). Collectively, they posted a 42-11 record with a 1.69 ERA while opposing hitters batted just .203 off Cougar pitching.
“They have been our three pitchers for four years now, and they’re very comfortable with each other and the pitching position,” Webber said. “When I put any of them out there, I know I don’t have to worry. They’re going to work hard, compete, lead the team, and keep us in every single ballgame that we play. What’s going to help them this year is for the first time in their career they get to face new people.”
The 2013 season adds the first new arm to the pitching staff since the 2010 season when Kim, Worley, and Devich were freshmen. This year, they are joined by a 5-foot-3 righthander, freshman Narissa Garcia, who was a three-time all-league first team pitcher at Redlands High School.
“With Narissa mixing into the rotation, she’ll make us that much better,” Webber said. “As long as everyone stays healthy, I think we should have one of the best pitching groups in the conference.”
Behind the plate, senior Jac Harkey started 40 games last year, with fellow senior Adrianna Martinez picking up the remaining 13 starting assignments. Harkey batted .277 (33-for-119) and provided some offensive pop with 10 extra-base hits, including four home runs, last season. She threw out nearly a quarter of every stolen base attempt, registering nine caught stealing on the year.
Martinez has 37 games of experience entering her senior year, although her recovery from offseason shoulder surgery will keep her out of the lineup for several weeks at the start of the year.
“They both have experience and leadership that’s invaluable,” Webber said. “They do a great job calling games, protecting our pitchers, and running the defense like an experienced catcher should. There’s a comfort level in knowing that they’ll call a great game and keep us in the ballgame by keeping the pitchers in check.”
One of three freshmen joining the program is Madison Hernandez, an athletic right-handed hitting catcher who was a four-time All-Baseline League first team pick. Hernandez may also see time at third base for the Cougars
Although Azusa Pacific brings back six of nine starters from a year ago, all three starters lost came from the infield. Sophomore second baseman Katrina Oviedo is the lone returning starter in the infield after batting .283 (26-for-92) in 42 games as a true freshman last year. With starting spots vacated at shortstop and both corner infield positions, a balanced mix of returnees and newcomers will fill out the remaining infield spots.
Senior Rachel Miller has moved back to the middle infield, where she started her career before moving to the outfield the past two years. Miller batted .311 (37-for-119) with six doubles and eight home runs last year, and she also drew 15 walks which ranked second on the team.
“Katrina is a great second baseman who brings a powerful and consistent bat to the lineup,” Webber said. “Rachel moves back to the infield to a position that’s fairly new to her, but she’s a great athlete and we think she’ll do just fine there. She gives us good range, a strong arm, and a good bat.”
Freshman Jessica Melcher, along with senior Brandi Andrews, are potential starters at first base. Melcher is an excellent defensive first baseman who stands 5-foot-11, and Andrews spent last season in right field but may make the move to help solidify the infield with a veteran presence.
“First base would be a new position for Brandi, and it’s something she’ll have to grow into and learn quickly,” Webber said. “Jessica brings great size and agility to first base, and she’s very good defensively.”
Several candidates for playing time at third base include sophomore Sona Babayan, along with newcomers in Hernandez and Garcia. Babayan appeared in 30 games last year, primarily as a pinch-runner, and she registered six steals as a freshman.
Senior centerfielder Angie Sprague anchors an outfield that technically returns all three starters, although Miller and Andrews could switch positions to help solidify the infield. Joining Sprague as a returning starter is fellow senior Heather Koch, who split time between the outfield and designated player spots in the lineup last season. Sprague batted .370 (70-for-189) and led the team in runs (50) and stolen bases (36) last year, while Koch posted a .313 average (46-for-147) with 12 doubles, three home runs, and 45 runs scored.
“Angie is coming off a very good season, and she’s probably our best outfielder with the way she commands center field and takes care of the entire outfield,” Webber said. “Heather also had a great season for us at the plate.”
If Andrews moves to first base instead of returning to her right-field starting spot, the Cougars will have several options to fill out the remaining outfield positions. Senior Brittni Moreno stole six bases while appearing in 23 games a year ago, and Kim, Babayan, and Renae Chappelle could earn consideration to fill that spot, along with Erica Taft, a senior transfer from Finlandia (Mich.) University.
Azusa Pacific opens the season with a single game at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps before diving right into Division II games with a Feb. 2 doubleheader at Cal State San Bernardino. The Cougars open the unbalanced 32-game Pacific West Conference schedule with its first 10 conference games at home, starting with a Feb. 22 doubleheader against Academy of Art.
The Cougars follow the opening homestand with a 10-game visit to Hawai‘i to take on the conference’s four schools based on the Hawaiian Islands (Hawai‘i Hilo, Chaminade, Hawai‘i Pacific, BYU-Hawai‘i). Wrapping up conference play are back-to-back doubleheaders on consecutive days against California Baptist, Dixie State, and Grand Canyon, which were picked as the top three teams in the conference in the PacWest preseason coaches poll. Hawai‘i Pacific was picked fourth, while Azusa Pacific slotted in fifth ahead of Hawai‘i Hilo, Academy of Art, Notre Dame de Namur, Chaminade, BYU-Hawai‘i, Dominican, and Holy Names.
“I’ve been asked a lot how I think we’re going to do, and honestly, I really don’t know how we’ll fare in this conference,” Webber said. “A good, accurate prediction would be difficult, but I would say we’re going to do well and that we’ll be competitive. I think The PacWest is going to be a much more consistent challenge for us. You’re looking at teams where they could whip you or you could whip them any given game. The reason why we stepped up to the NCAA is for a greater challenge, and I think we’re going to get that this year with each game.”
The non-conference schedule includes appearances in tournaments in February and March. The Cougars are participating in the 28-team Desert Stinger tournament in Las Vegas, Nev., Feb. 8-9, as well as the Tournament of Champions in Turlock, Calif., April 5-6. Although it is not able to qualify for NCAA Division II postseason play during the university’s candidacy period, Azusa Pacific will participate in National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) playoffs following the conclusion of the regular season.
“We’re really looking to establish ourselves as a strong PacWest program and then finish with a championship at the National Christian College (NCCAA) national tournament,” Webber said. I don’t just want a trip, I want a championship.”
Other non-conference opponents are early-season meetings with former Golden State Athletic Conference rivals Biola (Feb. 19) and Vanguard (March 2).