The 2017 campaign provided Bulldog fans their final opportunity to enjoy watching star two-way player Michaela Woodward. The Cortland, Neb., native finished her career with a flurry, belting three blasts at the conference tournament, allowing her to eclipse the school’s single-season record for home runs. Behind Woodward, the 2017 Concordia softball team possessed the ability to hang with just about anyone in the country.
The fourth season of head coach Todd LaVelle’s tenure produced plenty of memorable moments, including Woodward’s massive home run that broke the record in Hastings. There was also the thrilling walk-off victory over 10th-ranked Morningside, a 19-game stretch during which the Bulldogs went 16-3 and a blazing hot second half of the season by sophomore Leah Kalkwarf.
“I’m very happy with the season we had. I think we took tremendous strides,” LaVelle said. “Obviously the goal every year is to win the conference tournament and make it to nationals, but when you have a chance to reflect on this year you have to celebrate the accomplishments we had. Thirty-four wins is definitely a great accomplishment and then you see all the individual accolades our girls had.”
At 34-14 overall, Concordia equaled the 2003 team for the second most victories in program history. It featured not just Woodward, but an entire cadre of hitters in the most well-rounded lineup LaVelle has put together in Seward. LaVelle often had the luxury of filling out lineup cards complete with nine players boasting better than .300 batting averages. Kalkwarf hit a team high .366 with 39 RBIs. Though her season was cut short, Autumn Owens hit .350 and slugged eight home runs. In a breakout season, center fielder Megan Ruppert batted .349. Shortstop Jamie Lefebure improved dramatically at the plate and Diana Mendoza hit .333 in her final collegiate season.
A starter in all 48 games, Kalkwarf’s second half of the season was nothing short of ridiculous. Over the final 21 games of the year, she went 32-for-66 (.485) with 21 runs scored, 21 RBIs, 11 doubles, a triple and two home runs. LaVelle has always had high expectations for what Kalkwarf could do coming out of Millard South High School in Omaha. Her 16 doubles left her one shy of a program single-season record.
“Leah was a great recruit and a very highly touted high school player,” LaVelle said. “She has the drive and the passion to win. To be honest, I was never that surprised that she had this kind of year. She showed glimpses of it her freshman year. Her confidence just grew having year one under her belt. I think she’ll be even better her junior year. She has a desire to become the best. You can’t coach that.”
Perhaps the greatest individual performance of the season, in a doubleheader, occurred on March 21 when Concordia swept Doane at Plum Creek Park. Senior Kylie Harpst went off. Every time there was an opportunity to come up with a big hit, she did it. She went 3-for-5 with a double, triple, a home run and eight RBIs in an impressive performance. No stranger to clutch hits, Kalkwarf provided the walk-off single in the home victory over Morningside.
One limiting factor in Concordia’s postseason push was the torn labrum suffered by Owens, who was forced to sit out the final 10 games of the campaign. Because of the injury, Owens will not return to Concordia for her senior season. Her power bat could have made a difference at hitter friendly Smith Softball Field in Hastings, where the Bulldogs traveled to for the conference tournament. Owens belted 21 home runs in her three collegiate seasons.
“I loved Autumn. She came here three years ago and has been nothing but a great person and a great player,” LaVelle said. “She tore her labrum during warmups. It was a really freak accident. She has elected to go back home and have the surgery. We respect her decision and thank her for her commitment to Concordia the last few years.”
The unexpected departure of Owens raises the importance of the growth of 2017 freshmen such as Delaney Nance, Taryn Thomas, Tricia Tripp and Ronee Watson. Both Thomas (.323) and Watson (.322) were regulars in the lineup and put together solid rookie campaigns. Nance got some experience in the circle and will have greater opportunity at that position in future years with Harpst and Woodward moving on.
“Every year you hope some of the incoming freshmen are going to help you, and those girls really did,” LaVelle said. “They had outstanding years. We moved Ronee to third, a position she wasn’t used to and she handled it really well. They were thrown into the fire. We keep the nine girls in the lineup that we feel give us our best shot at scoring runs.”
LaVelle, who picked up his 100th career collegiate win on March 6, has overseen three of the program’s seven 30-win seasons in school history. This team was unique in that it did virtually everything well. Among GPAC squads, it ranked second in runs scored per game (6.3), second in ERA (3.27) and third in fielding percentage (.954).
What can’t be measured precisely is just how well this team seemed to mesh together, particularly in the latter stages of the season when Concordia locked up a tie for second place in the GPAC standings. Its 14-6 conference record was another LaVelle-era best. About the only disappointment was that the team fell short of reaching the national tournament for what would have been the third time in four years.
That fact will drive them this offseason.
“Team bonding is always one thing,” LaVelle said. “Every team is different and every year is different. When you put about 35 girls out there for the first practice you just never know how they’re going to react. You have to get them to believe and accept their roles on the team. That’s always a challenge. There’s no doubt we’ll have some very talented freshmen again next year. We’ll continue to work on all aspects of the game.”