Azusa Pacific softball opens its 2015 campaign today, coming off a successful season that ended with a 40-19 overall record (22-10 PacWest).
The team was selected to finish third in the PacWest preseason coaches poll behind Dixie State and California Baptist, which shared the conference championship last year.
The Cougars return the core of their 2014 roster, which had no seniors.
“Normally, at the start of a season, you have to teach people, ‘This is how you do this,’ or, ‘This is how you do that.’ But now we have experienced, smart ball players,” said head coach Carrie Webber. “We’re trying to take that next step in our game and be conference leaders instead of conference almost-leaders.”
Among the 13 returners is PacWest Preseason Player of the Year Nicki Sprague. The sophomore third baseman earned co-Player of the Year and Freshman Player of the Year honors last season after setting three single-season program records in batting average (.492), hits (87) and runs scored (63).
The roster also features five seniors, including Katrina Oviedo, who is one of three players in the program for four years.
Oviedo and Sprague each emphasized the significance of the chemistry this team has, having already played one season together.
“We’ve brought back the vibe and the chemistry we had last year, and it works really well with our team,” Oviedo said.
The Cougars also welcomed to their 2015 roster several new players, who Webber says “complement” the 13 returners.
Among the seven newcomers are transfers Jacqueline Carlin and Ally Wimer.
Carlin comes to APU from the Division II program at University of Charleston, where she started 46 games her sophomore season (2013), recording a .292 batting average as the Golden Eagles’ leadoff hitter.
Wimer joins the Cougars after two seasons at Shasta College, where she helped her team to two consecutive undefeated league titles as a two-time all-conference catcher. She also batted .355 in her two years with the Knights.
The transfers add to the returning roster’s strength behind the plate. In addition to Sprague, the Cougars bring back junior catcher Madison Hernandez and junior first baseman Jessica Melcher. Hernandez led the team in home runs (six) and RBIs (46) with a .354 batting average while Melcher tabbed 40 RBIs and four home runs last season.
“We’re really building on our hitting,” Webber said. “We’re going to have one through nine that can actually hit and bring in runs.”
Sophomore Carly Xepoleas returns to the Cougars’ pitching staff after starting seven games and appearing in 11 others in 2014, finishing with a 2.01 ERA. The team also returns two veteran pitchers, junior Narissa Garcia and senior Destinee Levesque.
“Experience and confidence are the two things that are going to bring us to the next level,” Webber said. “The talent is there. Once they understand what’s expected of us and what’s expected of the league, they can really go after their goals.”
The PacWest features tough competition in softball, which Webber describes as a “dogfight.” The Cougars split 10 of 16 conference doubleheaders last season.
“You have to be mentally tough in this conference. You have to be physically tough in this conference,” Webber said. “You have to go out with a mindset that you’re going to score runs and play well every single game. If you don’t, you’re going to lose.”
The Cougars are looking to build off their strengths from last season to again contend for a top spot in the PacWest.
“We’re not going to skip a beat this season,” Sprague said. “We’re going to pick up right where we left off.”