Biggest series of the season up next for GCU softball

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                </div>  The success formula that Ann Pierson has used to build a solid softball program at Grand Canyon University apparently is working almost as well at the next level.  The […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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The success formula that Ann Pierson has used to build a solid softball program at Grand Canyon University apparently is working almost as well at the next level.  The Antelopes are sitting in second place in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) in their first year of Division I ball.

Pierson, the Lopes’ head coach who pioneered  the program 11 seasons ago, has utilized large numbers of local talent to develop a program that was very successful at the Division II level and now is being tested at the next level as the small Christian college in west Phoenix begins a four-year transition to full accreditation as a D-I program. During the 10 years Pierson guided the program through the Division II waters, she posted just one season of fewer than 20 wins, had 30+wins twice, and 40 or more twice.

This year’s squad, which includes 14 in-state players on its 18-man roster, was picked in the pre-season to finish sixth in its inaugural season in the WAC, so her players are exceeding expectations.

However, they face arguably their biggest test of the season this weekend when they take on the team that was the pre-season favorite to win it all, New Mexico State.

But they have the momentum and confidence they will need since they’re coming off a three-game road sweep of Utah Valley, a good team that is tied for third place in the conference.  So being able to host the Aggies this weekend in the comfortable surroundings at Stapleton-Pierson Stadium will be a welcome advantage.

While this isn’t a rivalry game – in fact, the two teams have never met – it is a huge series for both teams.  GCU (22-17, 7-1) can move into first place in the WAC with a sweep of NMS (26-26, 8-1).  However, if the Aggies can pull off a sweep of the Lopes, they could lock up the WAC title.

New Mexico State is also on a roll, winning its last five games.  Like GCU, the Aggies are coming off a big weekend after sweeping CSU Bakersfield by handily winning the first two games, 7-5 and 8-1, and then coming back with an explosive finale to win by their biggest margin all season, 17-2.

But the Lopes’ performance against Utah Valley was equally impressive.  They won the first two games by  identical scores of 8-3, but the wins were a contrast in style that has enabled GCU to remain competitive this season.  Utah Valley scored four of its six runs off home runs, while the Lopes pecked away at the  NMS pitchers with singles and doubles and scrappy base running.

In the final game of the weekend, the Wolverines again went to the long ball, using a pair of home runs to take a 3-2 lead in the fourth inning.  But the Lopes came roaring back in the sixth, scoring 11 runs to put the game out of reach.  This time they showed they could also reach the fences when needed as junior Lauren Regester (Basha HS, Chandler) parked her third home run of the season to score three runs.

New Mexico State will be a real challenge this weekend.  The Aggies lead the conference in team batting average (.326), and slugging percentage (.522), and their pitchers are a collective 3.62 ERA, also tops in the WAC.

But the Lopes will counter with a defense that has made just five errors all season to lead the conference with a .981 fielding percentage.  And senior Stephani Pesqueira (Tempe HS), who has a 2.86 ERA this season and is the school’s all-time leader in career wins, should be able to tamp down the Aggie firepower.

GCU will be counting on Kayla Henry and Kelsey Barak to continue their leadership at the plate.  Henry, the junior outfielder from Tucson’s Canyon del Oro HS, leads the team with a .341 batting average, and Barak, a junior shortstop from California who is hitting .326, has hit 33 RBIs and six homeruns to lead the squad in those categories.

The weekend series is a meeting between not only the top two teams in the conference, but also the only teams with overall records above. 500.  It will be the game to watch in the WAC as the regular season winds down.

And who could have anticipated that when the Lopes began their first season against Division I competition two months ago – and lost three of their first four games?

(Photo: GCU Athletics/Darryl Webb)