When the Grand Canyon Antelopes take the field in 2018, they’ll begin fighting for something that they’ve never been in the mix for before: A WAC conference championship.
When Grand Canyon joined Division I and the Western Athletic Conference in the summer of 2013, they had to endure four years of a so-called probationary period before attaining full-fledged membership status, a time period that precluded the Antelopes from postseason participation. With that cloud now lifted off the program, coach Ann Pierson’s softball squad is fully eligible for both the conference and NCAA postseason in 2018.
The Antelopes finished 2017 with a 36-18 record and ended the year seven games over .500 in conference play. Even though her team couldn’t see the postseason, despite their record, Pierson gleaned a lot from her team’s efforts. “It was definitely a positive thing, the overall experience of getting so many kids in the lineup to have opportunities to do anything – even pinch hit, run, or come in as a defensive specialist… We had a tough schedule and played some great opponents; we put up some good battles and some not-so-good battles. We just have to learn how to figure out how to win the not-so-good ones.”
The Antelopes will have to replace departed senior pitcher Taylor Nowlin in 2018, not an easy task. But Pierson thinks her staff will be ready for the challenge. “I expect a healthy Mariah [Valencia],” Pierson said. “I think she’ll have a great senior year. Bobo [Brianna Aguilar-Beaucage] toured this summer with team Canada and came back with a great amount of confidence. We’ve got two strong freshmen, who were both horses for their teams in high school and for their club teams… we will rely on them heavily, too.”
In her team’s first opportunity to do so, Pierson sees advancing to and winning the conference championship as a reasonable expectation for her club. “Looking at our opponents, you never know what you’re going \to get when you get out on the field with these teams. We never feel like we can just show up and that we’ve got it in the bag… everybody that we play will be competing to win. If we can go into the conference schedule and get in there and sink our teeth into it, it could give us a lot of momentum into the conference tournament.”
On the offensive side of the ball, Pierson’s team returns many of their top hitters from a season ago, both for average and power. “We are fortunate to have a strong senior class. Kendsey Hill and Niki Gonzalez are two that we are really expecting a lot out of as far as numbers,” Pierson said. She noted that there are several offensive weapons that the Antelopes intend to showcase throughout their lineup.
On junior leading hitters and twins Shea and Sierra Smith, Pierson sang the sisters’ praises. “I look forward to having them out there,” she said. “They are true triple threats and I always expect a lot out of them.”
If her team can’t fulfill the ultimate dream of following a Cinderella-story path to the Women’s College World Series, Pierson knows what her hope is for her program in the postseason: “I want to make sure we put a scare into somebody. I want to make sure we get into [the regional final]and if we don’t go on, I want to make sure that we are a memory for a team and make them go, ‘what the heck, who are these guys?'”
Pierson and Grand Canyon will open the 2018 season on February 8th at their hosted Kickoff Tournament in Phoenix. The Antelopes will open the season against Montana in a doubleheader and also play twice-defending champions Oklahoma twice during the course of the tournament.