By Steve Ramirez
Azusa Pacific University begins play in the NAIA softball championship tournament today in Gulf Shores, Ala.
But the road for the Cougars (32-21), who open up pool play against St. Thomas (31-21) of Daytona Beach, Fla., is quite a bit longer than the 2,046 miles they have traveled to Tobacco Road.
It’s a trip that was four years in the making and dates back to 2008, when coach Carrie Webber was summoned from Northern California. Along the way, there were growing pains of hovering around .500 for three seasons before finally catching fire over the past month to advance to the national tournament for the first time since 2000.
“I don’t think I could be more proud of the girls than of how they have progressed over the last four years,” Webber said. “Those girls who came before have paved the way for what is happening right now. This is where I expected this team to be at about this time.
“I thought it would take three or four years to actually see it progress to the point where we are. It just gives validation to what we are doing.”
The initial building blocks included senior infielders Nicole Llorens (of Western Christian) and Bekah Weisser, who were followed by juniors Erika Marmolejo and Olivia Wilcox and sophomores Brandi Andrews (Glendora), Taryn Devich, Angie Sprague (Charter Oak), Natalie Barnaby and Heather Koch.
All have played critical roles, especially this season.
Marmolejo leads the team with a .309 batting verage, with Wilcox tops in home runs (nine) and RBIs (39). Sprague, who is hitting .290 with 23 stolen bases and 33 runs, gives the Cougars stability at the top of the lineup while Devich (14-8, 2.10 ERA) and fellow sophomore Mariah Worley (11-6, 1.62) are leaders in the circle.
All have helped the Cougars go from 21-26 in 2008 to back-to-back 27-22 campaigns in 2009 and ’10 to becoming the No. 8 team in the country this year and earning a trip to the national tournament.
“I guess it’s been a four-year process,” said Llorens, who is hitting .266 with 21 RBIs. “I think the coaches have built us up, mentally. If you watch us, we have a different attitude on the field than before. We expect greatness from ourselves. I think we’ve grown a lot.
“I don’t think (back in 2008) I would have ever thought we could be this good. The team now is just a totally different group of girls. They are competitors who want to work and do well and they are willing to fight for it.
“That fight was lacking four years ago.”
A big reason is Webber, who played at NCAA Division 2 Chico State and coached at Santa Rosa Junior College before coming to Azusa Pacific. Webber, along with her coaching staff, provides strong mental support but also lets the players’ individual talents blossom.
“She personally has pushed me beyond mental and physical things I didn’t think I could overcome,” said Devich, who has been a clutch performer during the final stretch of the season. “I think just having that support has been great. We wouldn’t be here without her. She’s (Golden State Athletic Conference) Coach of the Year and truly deserves it.
“She throws it back at us and says it’s all because of us. But we wouldn’t be as strong without her.”
The Cougars, who began the season ranked No. 22 in NAIA, didn’t break from the gate quickly. They hovered around .500 during the first half of the season and were not ranked in the NAIA top 25 as late as March 29.
Then a light went on.
“It’s been crazy, the transformation this team has made,” Devich said. “I think we just hit such a low, playing-wise, that it sparked something in us. We knew we had the talent and the capabilities, and we worked hard.
“I think we got sick of playing down beneath our level and it started with beating Cal Baptist. It started from there and we just took off. That’s what we needed to prove to ourselves that we can beat anyone in (the GSAC), anyone in the country. We just decided to turn things around and work more together as a team versus individuals.”
The Cougars, just 19-15 after being swept by Concordia on April 2, rallied to win 11 of 14 games to close the regular season, including victories over No. 1 Cal Baptist (2-1) on April 9; No. 8 Concordia (6-5 and 2-1) on April 16 and No. 5 Cal State San Marcos (3-2) on April 26.
The success continued in the GSAC Tournament, with APU winning two of three from Concordia before being swept by Cal Baptist in the tournament championship series. It lost the second game 4-3 in 10 innings.
The difference, said Wilcox, who came up big late in the season, is that commitment to the team.
“It’s not so much that I want to do this for myself, but more like I’m going to do this for the team,” she said. “I think that’s what was different in me, and the team.”
The concentration now is on the NAIA Tournament, which begins today. The Cougars continue pool play Friday against Mobile (Ala.) and Saturday against Oklahoma City (Okla.).
The tournament then shifts to double-elimination on Monday, with eight pool winners advancing.
“We’ve faced really good competition at the end of the season and have performed well and risen to the occasion,” Webber said. “So going into nationals, I’ve told the girls, `We’re eighth in the nation. There are seven (teams) who are technically better than us. But we’ve seen the ones that are better than us and we’ve beaten them.’
“I think it’s ours to win and ours to lose. I think the girls are ready and prepared and will make a great showing.”