The Cougars baseball team looks to retain its PacWest title with a completely different team


Azusa Pacific baseball is in the final stretch of the offseason, and with the season set to begin in only a few days, the players are eager to get started.

“I’m just looking forward to getting out there with the new guys this year. We have a lot of new faces. We lost a lot of guys from last year, but I think just from what I’ve seen in the fall and now early spring, we’ve got a lot of good pieces that we can put together and be a really good team, as long as we all just buy in to winning, and not really look at anything but winning,” senior catcher Justin Gomez said.

The Cougars finished the 2017 season 42-12 overall and 27-9 in PacWest play. The prolific Azusa Pacific offense was led by the junior trio of Michael Staudinger, Adrian Tovalin and Pablo O’Connor. The Cougars led the conference in home runs and were second in the league in hits and batting average. The APU pitching staff had a phenomenal 2017 as well, leading the conference with a 2.93 ERA and 10 shutouts.

The 2018 team will look noticeably different, however.

The Cougars graduated 10 seniors, and lost Tovalin, Staudinger, and starting pitcher Billy Oxford to the MLB draft. Tovalin and Staudinger tallied 32 home runs combined, and Oxford provided a 2.64 ERA and 77 strikeouts.

Although the Cougars are losing some key pieces, a winning mentality still presides in the clubhouse.

“It’s a different team, a whole new dynamic. There’s 15 new players, we lost a lot of talented seniors and juniors to the draft that were great leaders, so the whole dynamic is different” head coach Paul Svagdis said. “We really don’t focus on last year too much, we’re focused on this year. We are really trying to focus on being a disciplined group and to understand the value of how the pitching plays off of the defense and the defense plays off of the pitching, and how nine hitters in the lineup make the difference, not just one.”

Not only are there changes made in the batting order and in the field, but Cougars’ fans will see changes on the mound as well.

“I think the chemistry is coming along. In the fall it was kind of tough seeing a lot of new guys out there, trying to get the hang of what they’re throwing, movement, and what they like to throw in certain counts. It’s just putting the pieces together. Who knows what is going to happen at the beginning of the year? But as long as we figure it out super early, I think we can put a really good run at it this year,” Gomez said.

Seniors Pablo O’Connor, Justin Gomez and Layne Henderson were all selected to the preseason All-PacWest Team.  O’Connor was also recently named the PacWest Preseason Player of the Year. The Cougars are returning five of their regular starters in the field, and the team contains 12 seniors, so there is no shortage of leadership and experience.

“With me, when I first came in, I struggled. I came in with a torn UCL, and I never would have thought that I would achieve what I achieved last year or the year before that,” O’Connor said. “What it is, it’s just staying focused and staying locked into what you’re supposed to do as an individual. That’s what we focus on a lot as a team: our own process, our own plan. If we have nine guys who all focus on their own thing, not focusing on what other people are doing, we are going to win and do well as a team.”

Azusa Pacific will begin their season on Feb. 1 at San Francisco State University in a four-game stretch, before heading out to Biola for one game on Feb. 7. The Cougars will play their first home games on Feb. 9 in a three-game stretch against Western Oregon.