Last year, NAIA power Azusa Pacific endured a season like none other in head coach Sharon Lehman’s 10-year history at the helm. At one point in the season, the Cougars had won 25 of 34 games and were ranked No. 6 in the nation. However, one-by-one, all 5 Cougar pitchers went down with injuries and ailments, and the top 2 power hitters missed as many as 10 games down the stretch. As a result, the Cougars lost 10 of their final 11 games, fell out of the top 4 of the Golden State Athletic Conference for the first time ever, and subsequently missed the NAIA regional playoffs for the first time in 14 years.
That was then, and this is now … at least Lehman hopes so.
“I don’t see a plethora of injuries happening again because of how hard the players worked in the weight-room during the off-season,” said Lehman. “What happened last year was uncontrollable, but they’ve worked much harder on the prevention aspect this year.”
Azusa Pacific returns the core of a team that was playing well and in the hunt for a record sixth Golden State Athletic Conference title before the wheels fell off. In all, 11 players from last year’s 26-20 team are back, including 7 starters and a quartet of quality pitchers. They all enter the 2005 season with a clean bill of health and full of promise.
“I’ve never been more excited about what could be,” said Lehman as she looked over her 2005 roster. “We shouldn’t be favored to win the conference, because I really believe this is the best softball conference in the NAIA, but we’ve refueled. And I know we’re hungry to do well.”
Heading the list of returnees are the lone seniors on the 16-player roster, twins Megan and Rachel Alkire, a pitching-hitting tandem that can carry the Cougars into the postseason. Rachel, a 2004 NAIA All-American first-teamer and GSAC Player of the Year, looks to return to that form. A do-everything type of player, Alkire heads into her senior season as a .331 career hitter who is second on Azusa Pacific’s all-time home run chart (16) and fifth in doubles (35). In the pitcher’s circle, where she was 11-1 last year before missing the final month of the season, her 25 career victories are eighth best in program history.
Younger sister Megan, one of the GSAC’s top run producers over the past 3 years with 30 doubles, also has 8 home runs and 24 pitching victories in her career, all-time top-10 numbers in program history.
When not in the circle, the duo forms quite a middle infield with Megan at second and Rachel at short.
While the Alkires provide the bells and whistles to the Cougar offense and pitching, it is a junior class that forms the foundation of the team. Third-year players like Shawna Paxton and Cassi Sweeney should emerge as vital contributors both with the bat and the glove.
Paxton led the Cougars last year with a .342 batting average that included 6 doubles and 3 home runs. She is a quality catcher who will push for All-GSAC honors in 2005. Sweeney is versatile in the field and provides a quality left-handed bat. Together Paxton and Sweeney team with the Alkires to form a formidable middle line-up that should push across runs.
After filling reserve roles the past 2 seasons, fellow juniors Rachel Yoshizu, a quick-handed third and second baseman, and Jessica Mikesell, a power-hitting southpaw, look for breakthrough seasons for which they have the potential. If healthy, Mikesell could be the surprise of the team with her offensive capabilities to drive the ball.
The fifth junior, Michelle Coleman, is actually in her fourth season in the program after being granted a medical hardship last year. A pitcher by trade, Coleman’s off-speed style teams well with the hard-throwing Alkires. Her experience and return to good health could prove to be invaluable to Azusa Pacific as the GSAC campaign unfolds.
Sophomore Kris Franks rounds out the Cougar pitching staff with the Alkires and Coleman. As a 2003 freshman, Franks paced Azusa Pacific with an 11-5 record that included team-highs of 84 strikes outs in 107 innings of work. She missed nearly all of 2004 with an injury, but she is back at full strength.
“Watching the game from the dugout last year was one of the best things that could have happened for Kris and Michelle,” said Lehman. “It changed their perspective of the game. They’re smarter players now and see situations much differently.”
A year ago Azusa Pacific welcomed perhaps its best freshman class in program history. Rookies Tami Carter, Courtney Cleaves and Justine Barnett became mainstays in the Cougar line-up, providing speed, offense and some pretty good defense as well. They opened their collegiate careers in a great fashion with rather impressive numbers at the plate. However, as word got out and scouting reports prevailed, the trio had to make adjustments. Now with a year of experience, they are expected to be catalysts in the Cougar offense throughout the entire season. Though Carter can play the middle infield as well, the trio is likely to make up an outstanding defensive outfield that can track down most fly balls and make strong throws to the bases.
Fellow sophomores Jessi Boicelli, who was pressed into everyday duty late last year and gained valuable experience, and Eva Tena give the Cougars depth as they battle for roles and playing time.
Three newcomers – freshmen Natalie Mickelson and Katie Beazley and sophomore Lori Shimasaki – are all expected to push for starting berths. Mickelson is an outstanding prospect who combines offensive power with deft defensive skills as a catcher or at one of the corner infield spots. Her bat and defensive skills should make her a fixture in the line-up. Beazley is a promising outfielder with speed and savvy. A transfer from the NCAA power Oklahoma, Shimasaki is one of the fastest players in the GSAC but it will be her production with the bat that gets her into the line-up on a regular basis.
“Offensively, we have everything,” said Lehman. “In Shimasaki, Cleaves, Carter and Barnett we have speed. In Mickelson, Paxton, Rachel Alkire and Mikesell we have power. Barnett, Cleaves, Carter and Sweeney can hit for average. And overall, we have the ability to play the small game when necessary. We have a variety of ways to attack teams.”
The Cougars will have to generate runs to be in the title chase for the GSAC, a conference that features 6 teams that have been nationally ranked over the past 3 years. Additionally, the pitching staff of Franks, Coleman and the Alkires will have to minimize some powerful bats throughout the conference.
“We have a good variety of pitchers and the first month of the season will solidify their roles on the team,” said Lehman. “Defensively, we have a lot of choices. We’re not flashy or spectacular in the field, but we’re fundamentally sound.”
Azusa Pacific opens its 56-game schedule Saturday, Jan. 29, with it first meeting in 9 years with NCAA Division III University of Redlands. The Cougars make their home debut Friday, Feb. 11, against up-and-coming NAIA member Dominican. After entertaining NCAA Division II power Cal State Bakersfield Feb. 15, the Cougars host their first-ever tournament featuring Madonna University (Mich.), Southern Oregon and Vanguard on the weekend of Feb. 18-19. Azusa Pacific opens GSAC play at home March 8 against Concordia.
“Everyone in the GSAC is returning a lot of players,” said Lehman, “so Cal Baptist and Point Loma Nazarene have to be the favorites. But I know our players are tired of watching other teams celebrate. There is a genuine hunger to excel and compete at the highest level.”
That would be enough to put 2004 in the distant past.