TURLOCK, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific used an opportunistic offense to pick up victories in all three games for a Saturday sweep over programs from the Great Northwest Athletic Conference at the Tournament of Champions presented by the Turlock Convention & Visitors Bureau. The Cougars opened the day by beating Simon Fraser, 4-2, followed by a 4-3 win over Western Oregon and a convincing 10-3 victory over Saint Martin’s to wrap up tournament pool play with a 3-2 record.
With the three-game sweep, Azusa Pacific hit 30 wins on the year for the third time in the past four seasons, improving to 30-14 overall. The Cougars turned 20 hits on the day into 18 runs of offense, leaving just 14 runners on base in the three games combined. Sophomore catcher Madison Hernandez drove in five of the 18 runs, and freshman third baseman Nicki Sprague scored five times on the day.
“It seems like it takes us a while to get warmed up when we play on the road, so it was nice to see us come back today and be fairly consistent throughout the day,” head coach Carrie Webber said. “We hit, defended, and pitched well, and we put all of it together for three good all-around softball games. I was proud of the team for taking three games in the fashion we did.”
The 3-2 weekend was identical to Azusa Pacific’s two-day experience at the Desert Stinger Tournament in Las Vegas, Nev., in February, when the Cougars lost twice on Friday before rebounding for three wins on Saturday against teams who compete within NCAA Division II’s West Region.
“It’s important for us to see these teams in our region to give us a good measuring stick of what we’re up against, especially next year when games like these will factor into our postseason,” Webber said. “It’s nice to get this opportunity to see what we need to do to keep improving within our region and our conference.”
A three-run inning in the opening game against Simon Fraser set the tone for how Azusa Pacific manufactured runs throughout three games of action. The Cougars rallied from a 2-1 deficit with a three-run fifth inning, taking a 4-2 lead in an inning in which it recorded just one hit. In fact, it was the first of two times Saturday that Azusa Pacific scored three runs on one hit in an inning, with the other coming in the opening frame of the 10-3 win over Saint Martin’s.
Against Simon Fraser, junior centerfielder Renae Chappelle was hit by pitch to lead off the inning, and freshman rightfielder Abry Moreno followed with a walk. A sacrifice bunt moved both runners up a base, and Sprague put down a squeeze bunt that scored the tying run as Chappelle beat the throw home to tie the game at 2-2. After Sprague stole second, Hernandez drove in the go-ahead run with a single through the left side. It was the only hit of the inning, but junior leftfielder Sona Babayan’s sacrifice fly brought Moreno home for an insurance run that extended the lead to 4-2.
“The way we try to play, we don’t necessarily have to come up with three big hits,” Webber said. “We just have to execute well to keep the merry-go-round rolling. As long as we have runners on, we can make things happen.”
Junior pitcher Destinee Levesque took care of the rest, setting the side down in order in the sixth before stranding two baserunners with a game-ending strikeout in the seventh. It was the third complete-game of the year for Levesque, who scattered two runs (one earned) on five hits and a walk with six strikeouts.
In the second game of the day, Azusa Pacific trailed Western Oregon twice by a run, giving up single runs in the first and the fifth before taking its first lead of the game with a three-run fifth inning. The Cougars turned a pair of infield hits, two errors, and another Hernandez RBI single into a 4-2 lead, and freshman pitcher Carly Xepoleas was able to preserve the win with the potential tying run on first base in the seventh.
Junior second baseman Katrina Oviedo also had an RBI single, tying the game at 1-1 with a one-out single to right-center. She also drove in the run that tied the game at 2-2, when she lifted a sacrifice fly into right field that was dropped by the rightfielder to allow a second run to score while Oviedo advanced all the way to third. She later scored on the two-out Hernandez single for what turned out to be the game-winning run.
Starting pitcher Narissa Garcia allowed two runs on just three hits and one walk in five innings, striking out three to pick up the win, and Xepoleas struck out two in her two innings of work to earn the save, her fifth of the season.
In the final game of the day, Moreno led off the bottom of a three-run first inning with the only hit of the frame, which was a single up the middle. Oviedo moved her to second with a sacrifice bunt, Sprague drew a walk, and Moreno went to third on a wild pitch before beating a throw home on a Hernandez squeeze bunt. Babayan dropped another sacrifice bunt to move the runners up a base, but an error kept Babayan on the bases while Sprague scored and Hernandez advanced to third on the error. Babayan was caught stealing in a rundown between first and second, but that allowed Hernandez to score from third and make it a 3-0 lead after one inning.
“Our team is starting to gain confidence in executing the plays we call offensively,” Webber said. “They’re doing a much better job of executing now than they were just a few weeks ago. They are getting those sacrifices and squeeze bunts down, they’re executing hit-and-runs, and they’re being aggressive on the bases. There might be times where we get thrown out being too aggressive, but I’d rather do that than hesitate and not put runs across.”
Garcia led off the second with another base hit, dropping a single into left field, and the Cougars loaded the bases with no outs when Chappelle and junior shortstop Desiree Chavez dropped consecutive bunt singles. A fielder’s choice at the plate marked the first out, but Oviedo’s grounder to shortstop traded the second out for a run, and Sprague cashed in the two remaining baserunners with a two-out, two-run single through the right side to extend the lead to 6-1.
With two more runs in the fifth, Azusa Pacific nearly ended the game after scoring twice in another one-hit inning, as the baserunner representing the potential run-rule score was left at third base to keep Saint Martin’s alive after five frames. The Saints took advantage of their extra life with two runs in the sixth, which Azusa Pacific answered with a two-out, two-run single from Hernandez for the final 10-3 margin.
Hernandez was one-for-two with two runs and three RBIs in the finale, and Sprague went two-for-two with three runs and two RBIs. Xepoleas allowed three runs on seven hits, tossing six innings before letting Levesque finish off the win with a scoreless seventh inning.
Azusa Pacific’s pitching staff combined to strike out 13 and walk just four while posting a combined 2.33 ERA on the day. Over the two-day tournament, the Cougars were led offensively by Hernandez and Sprague, who each went six-for-13 (.462). Hernandez had a pair of home runs and drove in seven in the tournament, and Sprague scored six times while driving in three. Chavez also hit .400 over the two-day tournament, batting four-for-10 with three runs and a stolen base.
Before returning to Pacific West Conference play with a Bay Area trip which includes a visit to Dominican and back-to-back doubleheaders at Academy of Art, Azusa Pacific will host Hope International in a non-conference home doubleheader on Tuesday, April 8, at 4 p.m.