“We can compete for the GSAC title,” said Azusa Pacific Coach Sharon Lehman with a deadpanned look of assurance. “I’m confident. We have the talent.”
Yeah, and so too does everyone else in what has to be considered the strongest softball conference in the NAIA. Fourteen players of last year’s 18-member All-GSAC team are back this season. There seems to be no critical need for Point Loma Nazarene (NAIA runner-up), Biola (NAIA regional champ), and Concordia (ranked No. 18 in last year’s final NAIA poll) to reload or rebuild; they’ve maintained the same great squads that they all had last year. And Vanguard, which narrowly missed the regional playoffs and Cal Baptist, a vastly improved program over the past 2 years, would certainly echo their own similar comments to those of Lehman.
So what makes Lehman so assured, and in truth, really not off-based in her beliefs? It’s the fact that of last year’s 4 NAIA regional playoff teams, Azusa Pacific was the youngest, and the Cougars closed the campaign on a steamroll, playing like a savvy squad of experienced veterans. The core of that group is back, a little wiser, a littler older and a lot more mature about the game of college softball.
“We’re more intelligent and aggressive this time around,” said Lehman. “We have the physical tools, it’s now a matter of handling the mental aspect of competing in such a great conference. If we confidently play our game without focusing on the opponent, we can be as good as anyone in the GSAC.”
Azusa Pacific, which has averaged 41 victories over the past 8 seasons, returns 10 players from last year’s 34-19 team that won its last 9 regular season games (and 17 of 20) to edge Vanguard for the final NAIA regional playoff berth. And heading the list of returnees is a quartet of sophomore pitchers, who as collegiate rookies last year, accounted for all 358 innings of play and every one of the Cougars’ 34 victories.
“Our pitching is what will determine the difference for us in games this year,” said Lehman. “They’ll have to keep us in the game and dictate to the hitter what happens on each at-bat.”
Nicole Hendrix (Littleton, Colo./Denver Christian) emerged as the ace of the staff, winning 13 of 19 decisions including gems over nationally-ranked Biola, Concordia and Vanguard in the final 3 weeks of the season, while putting together a 1.71 ERA.
Twins Rachel and Megan Alkire (Union City, Calif./Logan HS) are quality hurlers who combined for nearly 200 innings of work and 18 victories last year. Megan (8-7, 2.14, 98.1 IP) did a lion’s share of the pitching early in the season, biding time for Hendrix to develop, and Rachel (10-4, 1.59, 101. IP) was masterful during the Cougars’ late-season run, winning 6 straight decisions in March and April.
Fellow sophomore Michelle Coleman (Glendora, Calif./Charter Oak HS), who became a victim of numbers just trying to squeeze in an inning here and there last year, nonetheless has the ability to be a reliable contributor.
Following in the footsteps of her predecessors, freshman pitcher Kristine Franks (Glendale, Calif./Crescenta Valley HS) has the skill to provide quality innings for Cougars during her initial college season.
“I’ve never had a staff as deep as this one,” added Lehman, who is now in her ninth season at the Cougar helm.” “The challenge for me will be to effectively employ each pitcher in the proper situations.”
At the plate Azusa Pacific returns a pair of All-GSAC honorees, seniors Jennie Waleszonia (Fontana, Calif./Miller HS) and Cassie Lakey (Kingsburg, Calif./Kingsburg HS), both of whom will spearhead the Cougar offense that must replace the GSAC’s all-time home run hitter in Lorna Lyttle. Waleszonia (..317, 2 HR, 24 RBI), a career .326 hitter with 11 home runs and 70 RBIs over the past 3 seasons, returns to her more natural second base with her sure-handed glove after filling in on an as-need basis at shortstop last year. A slap hitter, Lakey is coming off a .426 campaign in which she led the team with 20 stolen bases and 35 runs.
“Offensively, we’re young and Jennie and Cassie will have to get our offense going, particularly in the early weeks of the season,” said Lehman. “They’ve been through this now 3 years and know what it takes to compete in the GSAC.”
Along with Franks, Azusa Pacific welcomes 6 new players to round out its 17-player roster. Junior college transfer Megan Carpenter (Hayden, Ida./North Idaho College) and freshmen Shawn Paxton (San Jose, Calif./Valley Christian HS) and Cassi Sweeney (San Ramon, Calif./California HS) figure to press for significant playing time from the outset of the season. Carpenter will take over for Lyttle in centerfield where she’ll use her speed to lead and direct the Cougar outfielders. Paxton has all the tools to be an honored catcher. She can hit and has a gun for an arm. An outstanding defender, Sweeney arrives as a second baseman but because of Waleszonia’s presence will instead work several other positions throughout the season.
Though a first-year player on the collegiate level, freshman Crissy Butler (San Dimas, Calif./San Dimas HS) has a competitive edge that makes her a “gamer” in the eyes of Lehman.
First baseman Jessica Mikesell (Covina, Calif./South Hills HS) was enjoying a stellar prep career before a torn ACL wiped out her entire senior season. She starts her collegiate career on the shelf, recovering from major surgery but she is loaded with potential. She has a powerful bat and good glove, but she’ll need time to regain her strength and adjust to the college game.
“This is a good class of freshmen recruits,” said Lehman. “They all have the ability to play right away, and yet I think we have the luxury to bring them along at a comfortable pace.”
Seniors Sasha Budde (Capistrano Beach, Calif./San Clemente HS) and Aurion Sanchez (Covina, Calif./Northview HS) return to action hopefully at full strength. The hard-hitting Budde (.327, 6 doubles, 10 RBI) was off to a great start last year, splitting time behind the plate and in the outfield, until a concussion ended her season 21 games into it. Sanchez, another outfielder with a good bat, missed all of last year with a knee injury.
Fellow senior Holly Downard (Tucson, Ariz./Desert Christian HS), a reserve the past 2 years in the outfield, will press for a starting berth by relying on her left handed bat and speed.
A 2-year starter at third base, junior Trisha Rico (Alta Loma, Calif./Rancho Cucamonga HS) returns to the hot corner with her golden-like glove.
Freshman Rachel Yoshizu (Kaneohe, Hawaii/Hawaii Baptist Academy) has a fabulous glove that will allow her to get time in the field at third base as she makes the adjustment to the college game.
Azusa Pacific’s depth in the infield affords Lehman the opportunity to move and switch players around. Waleszonia could see time at shortstop as well as second base. When not pitching Megan Alkire can play second or third, while Rachel is a talented shortstop. When not in the outfield, Sweeney will see time at shortstop, second base and the outfield.
The Cougars’ 56-game schedule is rather grueling, both in and out of conference play. Sixteen times they lock horns with NCAA Division II teams, including 10 contests against national powers Cal State Bakersfield, Cal State San Bernardino, UC San Diego and Hawaii-Hilo. Then comes the GSAC, which a year ago fashioned a combined 122-67 (.646) record out of conference play and produced 6 teams with 33 or more victories.
“Given our depth, players will have to be selfless in order for us to be successful,” said Lehman. “And if the pieces come together, we’ll compete with the best of the conference.”
And in the Golden State Athletic Conference, competing with the best means competing on a national level.
Azusa Pacific is the GSAC’s all-time winningest program and is no stranger to success, winning 5 conference crowns in the past and advancing to the NAIA Tournament 3 times in the past 7 years. The competition will be stiff but a fourth berth certainly isn’t out of the question. The Cougars better have had a good cup of morning coffee to be alert and aware on game day as they navigate their way through the GSAC.