After the Grand Canyon University softball team finished the 2016 season with a 35-15 record, the Antelopes were honored as the sixth-ranked breakout program among all D-I schools, based on a variety of factors that include their eight-game improvement from the previous season.
Based on results so far this season, they may be in contention for another breakout award from HEROSports.com. The ‘Lopes are 23-4 and still have 19 more games to play in the regular season.
And you can’t say they have been playing under the radar. Instead, they have a big target on their backs after being picked in the preseason coaches’ poll to finish first in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) this season.
They’re hitting the ball – .332 team batting average, almost nine hits a game, and 14 home runs – but the depth in their pitching staff has been a big reason for their success so far.
A trio of home-grown hurlers is led by last year’s WAC Pitcher of the Year, Taylor Nowlin, who is 13-1 this season and sporting a 2.23 ERA. The senior from Peoria’s Sunrise Mountain High School is joined in the circle by two other local products, Mariah Valencia and Brianna Aguilar-Beaucage. Valencia is a junior from Paradise Valley High School with a 4-2 record and 2.43 ERA, while Aguilar-Beaucage is a freshman from Salpointe Catholic in Tucson who owns a 1.92 ERA and 6-1 record.
The group enables head coach Ann Pierson, in her 14th season, to deal effectively with batters on both sides of the plate. Valencia and Aguilar-Beaucage are right-handed throwers and Nowlin is a lefty.
GCU is in the final year of a four-year transition to full D-I status and the softball program has been steadily improving toward that goal. Last year’s conference mark of 10-5 was good enough for a second-place tie in the WAC, and expectations are even higher this year since the squad includes seven starters from last season.
Two of those starters, Camree Wartman and Shea Smith, are back again this year and leading the offensive assault. Both were named to the 2016 All-WAC Team and are in a head-to-head competition in the offensive stats. Shortstop Smith, a sophomore who graduated from Verrado High School in Buckeye, has been to the plate 88 times and is batting .432. Wartman, a senior who shares the infield at second base, has been up 87 times and is second in team batting averages with .391. Smith has 38 hits, Wartman 34.
Last year it was Wartman that claimed the top spot on the team, and in the conference, with a .392 batting average.
The ‘Lopes started the season by winning 18 of their first 19 games. All four of their losses were by a combined seven runs.
They just finished five games of play during the Stanford Easton Classic in California, winning three and outscoring their opponents 28-8. And this week they are back in the Sunshine State to play another five games in the Santa Clara Round Robin tourney.
But then the ‘Lopes will get the first big test of the season in the final two games before WAC play begins on March 31. The ‘Lopes will take on No. 6 Washington (21-3) on March 22 and then try to match up with No. 5 Arizona a week later.
After a couple of rounds in the ring with those two contenders the ‘Lopes will have a good idea of whether they’re ready to take on the challenge that lies ahead in the WAC.
The WAC opener against Seattle will be played in the new GCU softball stadium, marking the first time a conference game has been played there. The new stadium, which opened on Feb. 10, seats 1,000 in its first phase of completion, but will expand to accommodate twice that many when the second phase is completed in time for the 2018 season.
It’s a shiny, new home for a team ready to showcase an up-and-coming D-I program.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)