Story by Hope International Athletics
FULLERTON, Calif. – No. 15 Hope International (Calif.) played host to No. 6 Columbia (Mo.) on Tuesday, Mar. 27, in one of its toughest non-conference tests to date in 2018. The Royals (30-4) jumped on top early in game one against Columbia (11-6) and ground out a win in game two with solid pitching from Anessa Cepeda and Sabrina Canales' second grand slam in as many days.
Midway through the second game of the doubleheader the NAIA office announced its newest rankings, placing HIU at No. 15 for the Royals' best-ever ranking in the history of the program. With the sweep, the Royals tied the program record for wins at 30 and still have 18 games left in the regular season to improve that program mark.
Taylor Pierce got the start and the win in game one after working four innings against one of the best offensive teams in the NAIA. Pierce allowed three runs on eight hits and three walks before Jamie Ponce shut the door with a scoreless fifth frame – Ponce did not allow a hit and struck out one in relief.
The Royals jumped on the board early in game one with three in the bottom of the first – a leadoff walk for Justice Walker turned into a run, and after a Taylor Pierce single, a hit batsman, and a sacrifice fly the Royals took a 3-0 lead.
CC would get two runs in the third after a two-run shot left the yard in left field to cut the Royals' lead to one run, but HIU added three more in the bottom of the third. Kaitlyn Lanksbury kicked off a two-out rally with a single up the middle and a pair of walks from Drew Moore and Jaslin Rivas loaded the bases for Bree Maikai, who cleared the bases with an error by the CC centerfielder for a 6-0 lead.
The Royals tacked on four more insurance runs after Ally Painter got on with a single and Pierce reached on an error. Ponce singled in a run, Anessa Cepeda followed with another single, and Moore reached on another error by the centerfielder to give HIU a 10-2 lead after four innings.
The Cougars got one run back to extend the game in the top of the fifth, but HIU walked off with the win in the bottom of the fifth with an answering run. A leadoff single by Walker and a sacrifice bunt turned into the winning run after a pair of wild pitches allowed Walker to come in for the winning run.
Cepeda got the start in game two and worked a full seven innings for the Royals, holding a top-tier Cougar team to seven hits and a single run. The Cougars' lone tally on the board came via a double in the second inning for an early CC lead.
Both teams were able to get through innings quickly in a fast-paced pitchers' duel. The Royals struggled to score off the Cougars' ace through the first five innings, leaving a handful of runners stranded on the bases until capitalizing in the sixth.
Alexza Sanchez and Cepeda would produce singles in the early stages of the game, but the Cougars' ace kept the game moving into the bottom of the sixth. After getting two Royals out to start the sixth, the Cougars' ace surrendered a double to Ponce. A fielding error put Cepeda aboard at first, a walk drawn by Jenny Navarro loaded the bases, and Sabrina Canales left the ball park in left field with her second grand slam in two days for the lead.
The Cougars tried to rally with a leadoff single in the seventh, but Royals got Columbia out in order afterwards with two fielder's choice putouts and a grounder to Painter at shortstop for the win.
"This is really a credit to our players [and] our two assistant coaches, Holly and Kayla," Coach Dennis Blas said after the sweep. "[Our assistant coaches] and our players do a great job, they grind and get themselves better every day… their pitcher, Molly, really had us handcuffed pretty good [but] we found a way to win the game."
The Royals now turn their attention to the No. 5 Vanguard Lions – HIU travels to face the top-ranked Lions in Costa Mesa on Thursday, Mar. 29, with a doubleheader against the top GSAC team in the NAIA rankings. Links to live coverage will be available for that doubleheader from hiuroyals.com.