Azusa Pacific is off and running in 2018. The 18-2 Cougars are the top team in DII baseball for three consecutive weeks.

While we knew Azusa Pacific was geared up for a good season, its rise to the top early on has been a pleasant surprise. Coming off its first PacWest championship since joining the conference, high-impact transfers and some key returners had Azusa Pacific in the middle of the top 25 entering the season. The Cougars have put it all together quickly, rising to the top.

Here’s what’s behind their early season success:

A year of firsts

Azusa Pacific started 16-0 before dropping a game to Dixie State. That was the best start in program history, upping a stacked 2007 team by six games. That ’07 Cougars’ team — armed with current big leaguers Stephen Vogt and Kirk Nieuwenhuis — later set the single-season record with a 24-game winning streak. The hot start earned the Cougars the program’s first No. 1 ranking in the NCBWA poll on Feb. 21, a spot that they have yet to relinquish in 2018.

Offensive firepower

There’s no shortage of offense in the Cougars’ lineup. Azusa Pacific is leading the PacWest in home runs and is tops in all of DII baseball with 35 bombs.

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Pablo O’Conner is the reigning PacWest and West Region Player of the Year, and he’s already playing like he could be the 2018 award winner as well. He’s hot with the bat, hitting .414 with four home runs. Division I transfers Austin Russ and Tim Lichty are fitting in rather quickly. Russ just took home NCBWA Region Player of the Week honors after going 8-for-11 with 10 RBIs in four games. He’s now hitting a team-best .425 with five home runs on the season.

Sean Aspinall may be the best story of the bunch. After missing 2016 with injury and battling through another injury-riddled 2017, he has been healthy and hitting thus far. He has a team-best seven home runs and 21 RBIs to add to the Cougars’ potent offense. Aspinall is coming through when it most matters, including two games in a row with the winning hit back in February.

Get to know Isaiah Carranza

Carranza transferred from Oregon and quickly emerged as the Cougars’ ace. The junior righty is coming off a big summer in the Northwoods League, catching the attention of scouts with 54 strikeouts in 52.1 innings behind a 2.92 ERA. He has a solid fastball and changeup, and although he’s struggled with command in some of his outings, he’s been sharp when he’s in the zone.

His eight-inning gem on Feb. 22 against Concordia set the program-record with the Cougars 11th-straight win out of the gates. Carranza struck out 14 and walked none in his best performance of the season. The Cougars have produced 19 draft picks starting with that talent-laden 2007 team. There’s a pretty good shot Carranza will be No. 20.

Take cover

The Cougars’ leadoff hitter, shortstop Mychael Goudreau, has struggled with the bat a bit this season. He’s hitting just .253 through 20 games, but his impressive .423 on-base percentage keeps him atop the order. That’s thanks to taking a clunker for the team 12 times already this season.

MORE: Pace’s Dan Wirchansky throws 16-strikeout perfect game

Goudreau leads the PacWest in hit-by-pitches, landing second in all of DII on the season. It may just be a team strategy for the Cougars as they have been hit 36 times overall this season, a top five mark in DII. Whatever the case may be, its working for Goudreau. He’s scored 19 runs this season, in large part by getting on base the hard way.

Impact freshmen

Azusa Pacific Athletics

Tovalin is off to a hot start, hitting .359 with nine extra base hits.

The Cougars have an extremely veteran-heavy lineup slugging its way to the top of the leaderboards. Freshman third baseman Osvaldo Tovalin is making his presence felt early on, however. 

The left-handed hitter is slashing .359/402/.551 through his first 20 collegiate games. He has nine extra base hits, including a team-best two triples. Tovalin plays a big role in the run department as well, driving in 19 and scoring 18. 

The bullpen has some interesting freshman arms to watch as well. Lefty Brendan Dixon can strike people out in bunches, coming off a four-strikeout, two-inning performance. Redshirt-freshman Declan Kearney had a rough outing at Dixie State, but has otherwise been strong. He’s struck out 17 and walked just three in 11 innings thus far in 2018.

Wayne Cavadi is in his third year covering all things Division II sports for NCAA.com. In the “offseason”, he covers the Atlanta Braves minor league system for FanRag Sports and SB Nation’s Minor League Ball. His work has appeared on Bleacher Report, MLB.com, AJC.com and FoxSports.com.

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