AZUSA, Calif. -- After three consecutive splits with Top 25-ranked Pacific West Conference foes, Azusa Pacific is steadily building a case for itself among the conference leaders after the Cougars split with No. 22-ranked Dixie State for the second time in the past 10 days Monday afternoon in Azusa.
Just as it did in a Feb. 22 visit to St. George, Utah, Azusa Pacific gave up costly early runs in an opening-game loss before settling in and overpowering Dixie State in Game 2. The Red Storm pushed four runs across in the first three innings before junior righthander Destinee Levesque took over for five no-hit innings of scoreless relief in a 4-2 defeat. In the second game, it was the Cougars’ turn to rattle the bats early on for six runs in the first two frames.
Freshman third baseman Nicki Sprague hit a two-run home run, her second of the year, during a four-run first inning that erased Dixie State’s lead from Nicole Chavez’s solo home run that led off the game. The Cougars added two runs in the second inning, and sophomore righthander Narissa Garcia scattered one unearned run as she danced out of trouble over the final five innings to pick up the win in relief.
The split is Azusa Pacific’s third straight in conference play, following a Feb. 22 road split at Dixie State and a Feb. 26 home split against No. 3-ranked California Baptist. The Cougars visit the Lancers in Riverside for two games Tuesday afternoon, wrapping up a challenging 12-game start to the conference schedule. Only two of the Cougars’ 10 remaining PacWest doubleheaders are against teams who hold winning overall records this year.
“I’m happy to see the consistency that we can beat the top teams in the league,” Azusa Pacific head coach Carrie Webber said. “I’m very happy with how the team is progressing as a new team playing together. Now it’s to take two games instead of one, to really go after that first game instead of waiting for the second to find that groove.”
Chavez drilled a 1-2 pitch in her opening at-bat of Game 2 directly over the center field fence to give Dixie a 1-0 lead, but freshman rightfielder Abry Moreno led off the bottom of the first with a double two batters ahead of Sprague, who ran the count full with one out before drilling the 3-2 pitch over the right field fence for a 2-1 Azusa Pacific lead.
“I knew before the year started that Nicki had a really good bat, but I didn’t realize she would be so consistent in her first year,” Webber said. “I thought it would take a little time to warm up as a college hitter, but she’s jumped in with fearlessness and confidence. Players who are confident at the plate usually do well, and she exudes confidence when she’s up there.”
The Cougars didn’t stop there, following a lineout with a pair of two-out walks and a hit by pitch that loaded the bases for junior centerfielder Renae Chappelle’s two-run single that extended the lead to 4-1. In the second inning, junior leftfielder Sona Babayan hit a two-run double to left-center to add two runs to the lead, making it 6-1.
“A lot of times as a coach, you get anxious to get back to the top of the lineup, but with this team I love anywhere we start in the lineup,” Webber said. “We hit well from one through nine, and if we can score in the first inning, that tends to be a positive contagious thing.”
When Levesque, the Game 2 starting pitcher, ran into trouble by putting the first two batters on base in the top of the third, Garcia stepped in to retire three straight and get out of the jam. She got out of her own trouble with minimal damage in the fifth inning after she issued back-to-back walks that preceded a two-out error to load the bases. Garcia walked Dixie State’s hitting leader Marla Reiter on four pitches, bringing in an unearned run to cut the lead to 6-2, but she got the next batter to fly out to center to keep the lead intact.
A two-out walk in the sixth loaded the bases again, but Garcia induced another shallow fly ball that was hauled in with an impressive over-the-shoulder catch from junior second baseman Katrina Oviedo to strand three more Red Storm baserunners.
Sprague and Babayan each hit safely in both games of the doubleheader, running their identical hitting streaks to five games, and Moreno drew two walks in the opener before going one-for-four in the nightcap to run her streak of reaching safely to 10 consecutive games. Sprague now holds the PacWest’s second-highest season batting average at .559 (33-for-59) through 21 games.
In the opener, Dixie State pushed four runs across in the first three innings, scoring single runs in the first and second innings before Reiter smashed a two-run home run with no outs in the top of the third inning off freshman lefthander Carly Xepoleas, who beat the Red Storm with a complete-game shutout when the teams first met 10 days earlier. Levesque quieted the Dixie bats from there, firing five no-hit innings with four strikeouts the rest of the way. Although she issued three walks and hit another batter, no Red Storm baserunner advanced past first base with Levesque in the circle.
“We’re always trying to figure out which pitcher we are going to start, but it usually doesn’t matter who it is because we know we have somebody to back them up,” Webber said. “They pick each other up when one of them doesn’t happen to be ‘on’ for that particular day. We’ll usually be able to pull the three of them together to give us a pretty good game.”
Dixie State entered Monday’s twinbill with a .383 team batting average, but Azusa Pacific’s trio of pitchers limited the Red Storm to just 11 hits in 51 at-bats Monday. Reiter led the way in the opener, going two-for-two with the two-run home run, but she was hitless with a pair of walks in Game 2. Aryn Feickert drew the pitching start in both games, cruising to the complete-game win while scattering five hits and giving up two unearned runs in the opener before surrendering four runs on three hits and two walks without making it out of the first inning of Game 2.
With the split, Azusa Pacific is now 15-6 overall and 6-4 in PacWest play, while Dixie State is now 13-4 overall with a 4-2 conference mark. After the Cougars visit California Baptist on Tuesday, they will return home Thursday, March 6, for a non-conference matchup with Lake Superior State.