Over the previous four seasons, head coach Todd LaVelle’s teams had averaged more than 30 wins per year, had won a GPAC tournament title and twice appeared in the opening round of the national championships. His 2017 team won 34 games (second most in program history), leading into a 2018 campaign that would surely present some new challenges. The roster was about to be overhauled and the pitching staff would be gutted by graduation.
But LaVelle wouldn’t fall into the trap of becoming an excuse maker. Less than three weeks after the 2018 season ended abruptly at the GPAC tournament, LaVelle talked about his belief that this spring wasn’t all that it could have been.
“A .500 record is never what we want,” LaVelle said. “We could point fingers and make excuses and do a lot of things you just don’t want to do. There was no doubt we had a lot of new faces on the diamond. Just getting away from it for a few weeks, there have been a lot of things that have become clearer as to why we weren’t more successful. It starts and ends with me. We had some hard lessons and really need to take a hard look at what we need to do to climb back up. I honestly believe we have the talent do that.”
Chief among those talents is GPAC Player of the Year Hhana Haro, who we featured recently HERE. Haro headlined a freshman class that played a starring role in 2018 and is likely to continue to do so into the future. The group included outfielder MacKinsey Schmidt, voted by teammates as Concordia’s defensive player of the year, blossoming pitcher Grace Bernhardt and catcher Allysia Thayer, who has been lauded for a display of leadership abilities that go beyond her experience.
They assimilated within a squad that was mostly unestablished except for the middle infield duo of Leah Kalkwarf and Jamie Lefebure. Kalkwarf didn’t have quite the year she enjoyed as a sophomore when she garnered first team All-GPAC recognition, but she managed to hit .321 and to deliver a walk-off single late in the season to beat Dordt. Additional key position players new to the team in 2018 were Kenna Heath, Tori Homolka and Elanna Osthoff. Transfer Brittany Woolridge helped fortify the pitching staff.
There were moments of brilliance for many of the aforementioned names. Check that, it was basically all brilliance for Haro, who broke program single-season records for hits (76) and doubles (20) and had a signature five-hit performance in a wild 19-12, extra-inning win over Saint Xavier (Ill.) in Tucson. During that same road trip in Arizona, it seemed as if Osthoff hardly made an out. In the end, the Bulldogs were a .500 team (21-21) whose runs scored (249) were nearly identical to their runs allowed (250).
“Some of them were on the diamond and in a collegiate uniform for the first time, but I never looked at it like, ‘Hey, this is a rebuilding year,’” LaVelle said. “Even though we lost a lot of key players from last year, I still felt like we had the talent to win. No doubt some of our pitchers had to grow into their roles and we had the injury to Brittany. We still had the same goal every time we took the field and that was to win.”
On March 22, winning was suspended, literally. A collision at second base halted the second game of a doubleheader at Doane. By the time medical personnel transported the injured Tiger player to the hospital, darkness had set in upon Crete. One of the lasting images of the 2018 season had emerged during these occurrences when members of both teams joined in a circle and prayed. Said Schmidt at the time, “That’s the Concordia way. We always come together as a team when stuff like that happens.”
Comments like that are part of what make LaVelle proud of the freshman group. Schmidt and company will help form the backbone of Bulldog softball for years to come. Schmidt’s diving catch while ranging towards the gap in right center in an April 23 doubleheader versus Dakota Wesleyan may have been the highlight reel play of the entire season for Concordia.
“We knew that we had a talented freshman class,” LaVelle said. “We also knew right from the start they were going to have to fill some starting roles. I’ve been pleased with that class. I think the team felt the same way. At our picnic at the end of the season they voted all freshmen in our four major team award categories.”
Run prevention will have to improve for the Bulldogs to return to championship and national tournament glory. Concordia opponents averaged nearly 6.0 runs per game in 2018, which ended after the Bulldogs allowed a combined 16 runs in two losses at the GPAC tournament. One common denominator between LaVelle’s 2014 and 2015 national tournament squads was the presence of a reliable ace pitcher. The 2014 team had Amanda Beeson. The 2015 group had Michaela Woodward.
One candidate expected to shoulder some of the load is incoming freshman Camry Moore, whose signing with Concordia generated a buzz. Moore starred while leading Crete High School to a state title this past fall. She’ll become the third Crete product on the team, joining Lefebure and Schmidt. Said LaVelle, “Camry Moore is obviously going to be a great addition. She’s probably a better person than she is a player and that’s hard to wrap my mind around because she’s such a great player. She’s a proven winner.”
That sounds like exactly the type of player needed to compliment the returning talent in 2019. LaVelle will expect a lot of a team that will be more experienced next spring. There will be a much larger senior class on board. LaVelle hopes to steer these Bulldogs in a more unified approach in pursuit of a common goal. He already liked what he saw from Kalkwarf in the immediate aftermath of the season-ending loss to Doane. The three-year starter talked about what needed to be done to make sure 2019 ends without such a bitter taste.
Said LaVelle, “It’s going to be exciting. There’s going to be a lot of competition. There’s going to be competition like we haven’t had before, now going into my sixth year.”