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Sprague’s Record Is A Smash Hit

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Photo by Holly Magnuson
Nicki Sprague finished the regular season with three consecutive singles to break the program's single-season hits record (84) and lift her season batting average to .500 (84-for-168).

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April 21, 2014
Joe Reinsch
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AZUSA, Calif. -- Freshman third baseman Nicki Sprague singled in each of her final three at-bats, bringing an end to Azusa Pacific’s regular season with a two-out line drive to left center that scored a run and secured a 3-1, 9-1 doubleheader sweep over BYU-Hawaii Monday evening.

Sprague’s single-season total of 84 hits surpasses the previous record of 83, set in 1997 by Natalie Kirkbride, and her final base hit lifted her season batting average to an even .500 (84-for-168). With postseason play remaining for Azusa Pacific in the National Christian College Athletic Association playoffs, Sprague also has a chance to set the program’s single-season batting average record (currently .443 set by Lorna Lyttle in 2002) to go with her records for hits and runs (62).

The record-breaking hit almost didn’t happen. With Sprague waiting in the on-deck circle, junior second baseman Katrina Oviedo hit a sharp line drive down the left-field line that drifted foul by mere inches, and another sharp liner to right wasn’t able to score the runner from third base. Either play would have given the Cougars an eight-run lead and ended the game by the mercy rule, but instead Sprague was afforded one last opportunity to secure the hits record.

“Last week, my dad told me I was only a few hits away from the record, and I ended up having a terrible day at Vanguard,” said Sprague, who was hitless in seven at-bats as the Cougars dropped both games of that non-conference doubleheader. “Today, I just wanted to clear my mind a little bit, and I forgot about all of that. I was more proud of how we bounced back as team, but to have that record will be great to look back and mark the success this team has had this year.”

Sprague went two-for-three with two RBIs in the opener, a 3-1 win, but she popped out in her opening at-bat of the nightcap and struck out her second as her average dipped to .491. However, she drove in a run with an RBI single down the right-field line during a five-run third inning, and she added a fifth-inning single before stepping to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth.

“I was more nervous about just getting that run in and finishing the season with a good at-bat,” Sprague said. “The record wasn’t in my mind, and I’m glad it wasn’t because I don’t think it would have turned out nearly as well.”

With the sweep, Azusa Pacific finishes the regular season on a seven-game PacWest winning streak and a top-three conference finish. The Cougars, now 39-17 overall, have concluded the regular season with a 22-10 conference record, while the rest of the PacWest wraps up play later this week. Azusa Pacific is guaranteed to finish in at least third place in the conference with a chance to move up to second place should California Baptist (21-5 PacWest) falter down the stretch this week.

“We could not be prouder,” Azusa Pacific head coach Carrie Webber said. “This group is 14 strong, and even though they’re small in number and still a young team, we’re not even done with this year and I’m really excited for next year. It’s been fun to see them progress throughout the season and win some big games.”

BYU-Hawaii scored first in the opener, getting a rare run off freshman lefthander Carly Xepoleas, who had allowed just one earned run in her previous five PacWest starts. Xepoleas settled in and collected her sixth straight conference win by allowing just four hits the rest of the way while striking out eight in a complete-game victory. At one point, Xepoleas retired nine in a row as she became Azusa Pacific’s first pitcher to win 17 games in a season since Kris Franks in 2005.

The Cougars tied the game in the bottom of the second on junior centerfielder Renae Chappelle’s two-out RBI double, and Sprague scored freshman rightfielder Abry Moreno from third with a groundout in the third inning after Moreno led off with a triple down the left-field line. Moreno had another leadoff hit in the fifth, and she scored an insurance run to make it 3-1 on Sprague’s one-out single to center.

In the nightcap, the Cougars scored twice in the second inning, both on bases-loaded walks, to take a 2-0 lead, and Sprague’s RBI single highlighted a five-run third that made it 7-0. In the top of the fourth, the game was halted for about 30 minutes due to an injury that occurred at second base when BYU-Hawaii rightfielder Maria Micheli was thrown out trying to steal. Micheli’s head-first slide took her directly into the tag at second base for an awkward collision, and she remained in that position on the ground throughout immediate attention from athletic training staff until paramedics arrived to transport her to a local hospital.

When play resumed, the Seasiders cut the lead to 7-1 on an illegal pitch with a runner on third in the fifth inning. In the bottom of the fifth, Sprague collected one of three consecutive singles that led to a run that made it 8-1, and she drove in the game-ending run with her bases-loaded single that broke the record.

“Nicki’s going to continue to get better, even as other teams try to pitch differently to her,” Webber said. “We’re not looking for records, we’re looking for consistency, and that’s exactly what she was for us this year. It couldn’t have scripted any better at the end, with our last game at home, and she’s very deserving of the record because of her hard work.”

Junior righthander Destinee Levesque allowed one hit and struck out a pair in three shutout innings, and sophomore Narissa Garcia collected the win in relief after striking out four in her three innings of work.

Moreno joined Sprague with three hits each as the Cougars registered 16 hits in the nightcap, and Chappelle and sophomore first baseman Jessica Melcher also registered three-hit games for Azusa Pacific’s 13-hit production in the opener.

“These games were potentially our last games before our national tournament, which is still over three weeks away,” Webber said. “These games were our only chance to prepare for that tournament, and we needed to take care of certain things. When you haven’t played for a week, it’s hard to get back into that groove and get your momentum back.”

With its regular season completed, the Cougars now await NCCAA playoff information which will come after other teams complete their regular season.