AZUSA, Calif. -- Carrie Webber became just the second head coach in Azusa Pacific softball history to reach 200 career wins, earning the milestone victory with the opening-game 5-2 win over Hawai‘i Hilo in a Pacific West Conference doubleheader split in front of over 100 softball alumni and families in attendance for the Cougars’ first annual softball alumni barbecue event.
Webber’s Cougars found themselves in a 9-0 deficit in the third inning of the second game, but they stormed back with four-run outbursts in the third and fifth innings to cut the lead to 10-8 before Hawai‘i Hilo scored some late insurance runs for a 13-8 win and a doubleheader split.
“It wasn’t in my mindset today that we were going for my 200th win, but it goes to show what the program has accomplished over the last few years,” Webber reflected. “We’ve been able to contend in the conferences we’ve competed in, and all the credit for that goes to the players for getting all those wins.”
The Pacific West Conference’s batting average leaders met on the field for the first time this season, as Hawai‘i Hilo’s Rebecca Lee entered the day with a seven-point edge (.557 to .550) over Azusa Pacific freshman third baseman Nicki Sprague. Sprague got the best of the Vulcans early on, driving in the first four Cougar runs in the first two innings of the 5-2 win, including a towering first-inning two-run home run down the right-field line. She added a two-run, two-out single in the second inning that gave her team a 4-1 lead, and she was intentionally walked with two outs in the sixth inning.
Sprague was hitless in the nightcap but finished the day two-for-seven with two runs and four RBIs, while Lee finished the day two-for-eight with one run and one RBI. That was enough to push Sprague into the PacWest lead with a .534 average, one point ahead of Lee’s .533.
“Nicki exudes confidence, and when a player does that, it translates into their mental and physical game,” Webber said. “She’s confident with anything we ask her to do at the plate, and she’s done a fantastic job this year being an anchor for our offense.”
Webber, meanwhile, becomes the second Cougar head coach to post 200 career victories at Azusa Pacific, which began competing in softball in 1986. In fact, a four-year Cougar from the birth of the program, Marie Lehman Hagen, threw out Saturday’s ceremonial first pitch to kick off the afternoon’s alumni festivities. Her first pitch was caught by her sister Sharon Lehman, a member of the Azusa Pacific Athletics Hall of Fame who posted a 428-195 career record in 11 seasons as Azusa Pacific’s softball head coach and currently serves as the associate athletics director and senior woman administrator for Azusa Pacific’s 19-sport athletic program.
Sprague provided the early offense in the opener, and after the Vulcans cut the lead to 4-2 in the third inning, freshman lefthander Carly Xepoleas fired 4.2 innings of shutout relief to pick up the victory and improve to 10-3 on the season. Junior second baseman Katrina Oviedo dropped a two-out single into right-center field to drive in an insurance run in the sixth inning, providing the final 5-2 margin.
Hawai‘i Hilo opened the second game as it did in the first, scoring one run in the first inning when Emily Greene hit a deep fly ball to straightaway center that initially fell into the glove of junior centerfielder Renae Chappelle before she slammed into the center field fence and lost control of the ball over the fence. The solo home run was the first of two home runs for Greene, who added a two-run shot in the second inning which was followed by a Kaylie Drew solo homer that finished off a seven-run second for the Vulcans.
It was a 9-0 margin before Azusa Pacific got on the board in the bottom of the third, but the Cougars got right back into the game with four runs on two hits with help from two UHH errors in the inning. The Vulcans added a run in the fifth to push the lead to 10-4, but Xepoleas struck out Lee with two runners aboard to prevent further damage in the frame. With one and two runners on base in the bottom of the fifth, sophomore catcher Madison Hernandez knocked a base hit down the right-field line just out of reach of a diving Mariah Wyckoff. That allowed Hernandez to slide safely into third with a two-run triple that cut the deficit to 10-6. Junior leftfielder Sona Babayan and sophomore designated player Janelle Eccles added run-scoring singles later in the fifth to bring the Cougars roaring back to within two at 10-8.
“We’re finding out how hard it is to sweep the good teams in this conference, but we’d also like to think that other teams don’t enjoy having to play us twice, either,” Webber said. “We have a never-say-die characteristic that allows us to keep putting people on base and scoring runs even when we’re behind. There’s always an opportunity to come back and win a ballgame, and I think we showed that ability by getting back into that second game so quickly.”
Hawai‘i Hilo kept the pressure on, scoring once in the sixth and twice in the seventh for the final 13-8 score, and Ashley Nelson held the Cougars to just one hit over the final two innings to secure the victory for the Vulcans.
“We saw today as a positive, because even though we gave up too many runs, the fight our team had to come back and still score eight runs is something we’ll take as a positive from this,” Webber said. “Nine times out of 10, if you score eight runs in a game, you’ll win, so we were happy to see that happen today.”
Greene was three-for-five with five RBIs in the game, smacking her fifth and sixth home runs of the season, and UHH catcher Jillian Martinez went four-for-four in the game.
Babayan led the Azusa Pacific offense in the second game, registering two hits for the second straight game, while freshmen rightfielder Abry Moreno went three-for-four with a run and an RBI in Game 2.
Azusa Pacific is now 27-12 overall and 15-9 in the PacWest, while Hawai‘i Hilo keeps pace with the top half of the league standings by collecting the split to move to 18-16 overall, 11-10 PacWest.
The Cougars have an 11-day break from PacWest competition, taking on five different NCAA Division II West Region opponents from the Great Northwest Athletic Conference at next weekend’s Tournament of Champions presented by the Turlock (Calif.) Convention & Visitors Bureau. Azusa Pacific resumes the final eight-game stretch of the conference schedule with a trip to the Bay Area April 10-12 to take on Dominican and Academy of Art before wrapping up the regular season at home against BYU-Hawaii on April 21.