GCU softball 2 games from Tournament of Champions title

Going into Friday’s opening game in the Tournament of Champions in California, there was no guarantee which Grand Canyon University softball team would show up.

Apparently it was the right one, since the Antelopes have advanced through the three-day event in Turlock, Calif., to earn a spot in today’s Championship Bracket.

(*Update:  The Lopes beat CSU San Bernadino in Sunday’s first game, taking just five innings to post the 12-4 win and advance to the championship game against CSU Monterey Bay.  They lost that one, 6-5, to finish runner-up in the 24-team tournament.)

It can easily be said that the ‘Lopes are over-achievers this season, since they were tied for first place in the PacWest Conference just last week – after being picked in the pre-season to finish fourth.

But they’re also a streaky bunch of youngsters.

The ‘Lopes, who carry seven freshmen on their 18-player roster, stumbled out of the starting gate with a season-opening loss to CSA East Bay.  Then they won three straight games before going on a five-game losing streak during the Desert Stinger Tournament in Las Vegas.

They returned home and won four straight, but then hit the road again and went 2-and-2 on a trip to San Francisco.  But they got back on a winning streak again, with five straight coming into the California TofC.

Maybe it has just taken this group a little while to get used to each other.  Half of the roster is new this season.

But they have some dependable leadership in senior catcher, Christine Jordan, and a four-year starter in center field, Kara Holtorf.  The other two returning starters are sophomores: third baseman, Stephanie Smith, and Claire Zampini, the team’s second baseman who was named the PacWest Freshman of the Year in 2011.

Zampini is a local product who was an All -Region selection as a senior at Deer Valley High School in Glendale.  She hit .414 as a freshman, which was the best batting average on the team and third-best in the conference.

It was Smith that took a lead role in yesterday’s wins over Humboldt State and San Francisco State, as the ‘Lopes went 2-1 on the day, losing to Sonoma State in the final game.

Smith, the 5’4″ switch-hitter from Sandra Day O’Connor High School in Phoenix, started the scoring in a seven-run second inning in the 10-7 win over Humboldt with a two-run single.  Then, against San Fran, she rallied the troops from a 3-0 deficit with a lead-off single in the sixth, and teammates Holtorf and Kelsey Barak (Sunrise Mountain High School, Peoria) followed with a couple more one-baggers to spur the Lopes on to a 4-3 win.

Against Sonoma State, GCU ran into a buzz saw named Samantha Lipperd, who rang up 16 strikeouts to hold the Lopes to six hits in a 4-0 setback.

GCU split on the opening day Friday, but posted a huge confidence-builder when it defeated the defending national champion, No. 20 UC San Diego.  The Lopes beat UCSD’s All-American pitcher, Camille Gaito, to pull off the upset.

Kiley Raica was on the mound for GCU and proved to be an effective counter to Gaito.  The freshman righty from Tucson’s Canyon del Oro High School upped her season record to 12-5 with the 4-1 victory.

The Lopes had eight hits against the Tritons, with Smith and Holtorf contributing a pair each.  And Kayla Henry punched out her seventh triple of the season.

Henry, a southpaw outfielder who is also from Canyon del Oro High, not only extended her single-season school record with that triple, but it also tied her for the school’s career leader in that category.

Head coach Ann Pierson is hoping the right team shows up again today when they take on CSU San Bernadino at 12:15 and then, if they win the first game, they will face the winner of the CSU Monterey Bay vs. Saint Martin game at 2:30 pm.

“I feel good going into Sunday,” said Pierson, who is the only head coach in the softball program’s nine-year history.  “We’re executing on offense, playing good defense, and our pitchers have pitched well.”

Yeah, that’s the team she needs to show up again today.

(Photo: GCU Athletics/ Jak Keyser)