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Home sweet home

After an exhausting road trip that spanned 63 games and parts of three seasons, Pacific softball finally returned home and opened Sherman/Larkins Stadium by taking three of four games from Northwest Conference rival Pacific Lutheran
by: Zack Palmer, Pacific senior Caitlyn Mastenbroek rips a single during Game 1 of Saturday’s Northwest Conference doubleheader against Pacific Lutheran.

Home field advantage has become a foreign concept to Pacific softball coach Tim Hill, whose team wrapped up an epic 63-game road trip last weekend with the opening of Sherman/Larkins Stadium at newly renovated Lincoln Park.

The Boxers hadn't played a game in Forest Grove since 2006, instead taking to the road while construction crews worked on their new facility. Pacific played all 38 games last season and the first 22 games this season away from home, prompting Hill to breathe a welcome sigh of relief when Pacific cut the proverbial ribbon on Sherman/Larkins Stadium on Saturday with an afternoon doubleheader against Northwest Conference rival Pacific Lutheran.

'It was kind of a relief to get back,' Hill said. 'I forgot what it was like to play a home game. I don't even know how to describe it. It felt very comfortable; it was relaxing to be back at home after being away for so long.'

Pacific added to Hill's relaxed demeanor by taking three of four games from the Lutes (12-16, 9-7). Those wins helped the Boxers keep pace with league-leading Linfield - Pacific sits one game out of first place with 12 games left in the regular season, including a huge four-game series against the Wildcats in two weeks.

Pacific (23-3, 12-2) welcomed a large crowd on Saturday and gave the home fans plenty to cheer for with a 9-0 win over PLU in the opener. Freshman Brooke Toy jump-started the offensive fireworks in the first inning, yanking a pitch down the left-field line for a three-run home run, her fifth of the season. That tied the single-season school record, set last year by Forest Grove product Kristin Larkins.

'Brooke's home run is one we will all remember,' Hill said. 'After fouling off several pitches with a two-strike count, her home run is the hit that seemed to officially christen the park.'

Sophomore Brooke Fogwell drove the final nails into Pacific Lutheran's coffin in Game 1, knocking in a run in the third inning and adding a bases-clearing single in the fifth that ended the game. The nine runs were more than enough support for sophomore Miranda McNealy, who allowed one hit and struck out eight for her 12th win of the year.

'You could tell the girls were excited to play at home in front of a home crowd, and it was pretty cool because they took that energy right into the game,' Hill said.

The Boxers took an early 1-0 lead in Game 2, then waited out a one hour, 15 minute rain delay before securing the Saturday sweep with a 6-2 victory. Kelly Nishitomi, Kristen Croxford and Toy all had RBI singles during a five-run third inning and Pacific starter Andrea Bansen showed no ill effects from the delay, scattering six hits over seven innings for her 10th win of the season.

Pacific came back on Sunday and seemed poised for the four-game sweep after a lopsided 11-3 win in Game 1, but PLU rallied to win the final game of the series, 7-1.

'Going into it, in my mind I was thinking, 'We've got to take three of four,'' Hill said of the series against the Lutes. 'Then after winning the first three I was thinking sweep, so losing that last one was disappointing. But they're a good team and beating a good team four times is tough.'

Pacific busted open Sunday's opener with four runs on three hits and two PLU errors in the first inning. The Boxers padded their lead in the third with four more runs, then closed things out with two in the sixth and one in the seventh.

Senior catcher Caitlin Mastenbroek was 2 for 3 with two RBIs, and Nishitomi had two hits, two runs scored and an RBI. The Boxers belted 14 hits total against former Gaston High School star Hadley Schmitt, who took two losses over the weekend for PLU.

The Lutes finally got their bats going in the series finale, breaking open a close game on Carly Starke's sixth-inning grand slam. Pacific had seven hits in the game but could only scratch out one run against PLU starter Rachel Wheeler-Hoyt, who went the distance for her seventh win of the year.

Despite the loss, Pacific sits just a game behind reigning Division III national champion Linfield (24-2, 13-1) for first place in the Northwest Conference standings. Pacific will have to take care of business this weekend against seventh-place George Fox (3-21, 3-15) before traveling to McMinnville for a huge series against Linfield on April 19-20.

'At this point we're obviously a little ahead of George Fox, so it's about taking care of business - going into it with a professional mentality,' Hill said. 'The way our schedule is, the last couple weeks are going to be tough.'

NOTES: Despite the gaudy 23-3 record, Pacific isn't getting much love from the pollsters. In the most recent National Fastpitch Coaches Association Division III Top 25 poll, Pacific was nowhere to be found despite having more wins than 13 ranked teams. A new poll will be released today. ... McNealy is well on her way to another First Team All-NWC selection. The sophomore leads the conference in ERA (1.01), strikeouts (124) and wins (13). Her average of 10.1 strikeouts per seven innings is sixth in the nation at the Division III level.