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CSUSM Softball Captures First A.I.I. Conference Championship

CSUSM Softball Captures First A.I.I. Conference ChampionshipCal State San Marcos softball has captured its first conference championship in the program's four-year history. On the final day of competition at the Association of Independent Institutions (A.I.I.) Conference Tournament, top-seed CSUSM narrowly lost the early game 5-4 to second-seed Simon Fraser, but the Cougars bounced back to rout the Clan 9-0 in game two. CSUSM, ranked #5 nationally, is now 38-14 on the year.  Simon Fraser is 22-14.  By making the championship game, both teams earn automatic bids to the NAIA National Championships in Decatur, Alabama. In game one, CSUSM struck first, with Ciera Ashman and Elizabeth Bush leading off with walks, and Erica Coelho driving home Ashman with a two-out single. Simon-Fraser did not score in the game's early innings, but was able to scratch out a few hits off Cougar ace Brenna Sandberg, whose no-hit streak at the Conference Championships was snapped at 15 innings with a leadoff single in the second.  She had thrown back-to-back no-hitters in the first two games of the tournament. In the fourth inning though, Simon-Fraser broke through to take the lead by stringing together four hits and taking advantage of an error to go up 3-1.  That would be extended in the fifth, as another error and three more hits made it 5-1.  CSUSM would not go down quietly, however.  Singles by Coelho and Bush put two on in the sixth, and an error loaded the bases.  Ashley Estepa then hit a sacrifice fly, and Ashman boomed a double to right-center to cut the lead to 5-3. In the seventh, Alyssa Dronenburg led off with a walk, and after a Lauren Nelson single put runners at the corners, a double-steal plated the run but sacrificed the base runner.  A lineout and groundout ended the contest. Because the Cougars did not lose in days one or two, a second game would be played to decide the winner of the double-elimination tournament, and CSUSM would take immediate advantage. A monster five-run first inning gave the Cougars a lead they would never let go of.  Alicia Ingram drew a one-out walk, Dronenburg knocked a single, and with two outs, Coelho drove home the inning's first run with a big single to left.  Then, Shanti Poston, Bush, and Kimi Villalpando all walked, pushing home two runs; and with a new pitcher in the game, Ashley Estepa blasted a two-RBI single to left-center to put CSUSM up 5-0. Meanwhile, Sandberg was back in peak form on the mound.  She went the full seven innings, scattering five hits and working around three errors to allow no runs.  Sandberg struck out five and walked two as she improved her NAIA-best record to 36-10. The Cougars would continue to add insurance runs at the plate.  In the fourth, Dronenburg tripled and scored on a Nelson double.  In the sixth, Coelho walked and scored on a Villalpando single.  And in the seventh, Nelson singled home Ingram, and Coelho drove home Dronenburg. Simon Fraser loaded the bases in the seventh, but Sandberg struck out the game's final batter to close out the championship. The 32-team NAIA National Championship Tournament will begin pool play on May 20 in Decatur, Alabama.