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SEASON PREVIEW: 2017 Concordia softball

By Jake Knabel on Feb. 6, 2017 in Softball

At a glance
Head coach: Todd LaVelle (91-57, 4th year)
2016 record: 30-18, 10-10 GPAC (T-5th)
Key returners: Kylie Harpst (OF/P); Taylor Huff (C); Leah Kalkwarf (2B); Diana Mendoza (OF); Autumn Owens (3B); Megan Ruppert (OF); Michaela Woodward (P/1B)
Key loss: Julia Tyree (OF)
Key newcomers: Delaney Nance (IF/P); Janey Pasold (OF); Taryn Thomas (OF); Ronee Watson (IF)
2016 GPAC all-conference: Autumn Owens (first team); Michaela Woodward (first team); Taylor Huff (second team); Julia Tyree (second team); Kylie Harpst (honorable mention) 

Outlook
The core four hitters return from last season’s lineup that produced nearly 6.5 runs per game. Naturally, the Concordia softball program expects more from itself in 2017 after finishing the 2016 campaign with a 10-10 GPAC record. That wasn’t quite what the Bulldogs had in mind after jumping out to a 12-2 start that included a near perfect run through the Tucson Invitational. 

Concordia flashed potential as a team capable of competing right at the top of the conference. On April 9, it stunned eventual NAIA Softball World Series qualifier Morningside by the 10-run rule in the second game of a doubleheader in Sioux City, Iowa. However, the Bulldogs split eight of their 10 conference doubleheaders while struggling for consistency.

“We had 30 wins and it was somewhat successful, but we strive for much better than that,” said head coach Todd LaVelle, who led the program to national tournament appearances in 2014 and 2015. “To be real honest and transparent, it didn’t meet our expectations. I didn’t point the finger at anybody but myself. I said, ‘Hey, I think it’s a little bit broke. We need to fix it.’ I spent a lot of time looking at it and thinking about what we could do different. I think we’ve made some positive changes. So far the girls are buying into those changes. The expectations for 2017 are a lot higher.”

Though Concordia finished in a tie for fifth place in the 2016 GPAC standings, league coaches bumped the Bulldogs up to third in the 2017 preseason poll. The preseason buzz likely has something to do with the presence of the aforementioned quartet of Concordia sluggers that each hit .350 or better last season: Kylie Harpst (.392), Autumn Owens (.392), Michaela Woodward (.380) and Taylor Huff (.355).

The starting catcher and transfer from NCAA Division II University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, Huff doesn’t hesitate when asked which teammate puts on the biggest show at practice. That would be Owens, who routinely punishes softballs. Huff has no doubt about the explosive potential of this team’s lineup.

“We have great batters coming back and we also have some great girls coming in as freshmen,” Huff said. “Our lineup is stacked. We will hitting the ball so hard and scoring a lot of runs. It’s going to be really nice. It’s going to take some pressure off the pitchers for sure.”

The fearsome foursome combined for 23 of the team’s 28 homers in 2016. Owens broke out and became a star in her sophomore season, equaling a school single-season record with nine home runs. She also topped the team in RBIs (45), total bases (99) and slugging percentage (.692). In addition, she draws attention with her rocket of an arm from the hot corner. That type of offensive production won’t be easy to duplicate, but her head coach thinks the native of Henderson, Nev., has room for growth.

“She has very quick hands,” LaVelle said. “She has a goal in mind. She works hard towards what she wants to do and there’s no doubt that she will be a force once again. She tied a single-season record for home runs last year and I think she’s pretty motivated to beat that this year.”

Woodward is perhaps the most recognizable figure on the team, having logged nearly 350 innings in the circle over her first two collegiate seasons. She put together a memorable series of performances while pitching every inning during the 2015 GPAC tournament, which resulted in a Concordia championship celebration on Morningside’s home field. Woodward is also a middle-of-the-order bat with a career average of .386. Said LaVelle, “Michaela’s been awesome.”

Woodward will likely be counted upon for plenty more innings this spring, but the pitching staff also includes additional returnees in Harpst (13-11, 3.34 ERA in 121.2 innings in 2016) and AJ Wygant and newcomers such as freshmen Baily Clear (Alliance, Neb.) and Delany Nance (Gilbert, Ariz.). The goal is to keep Woodward fresh for the stretch run of the conference season.

“I believe pitching is going to be one of our strong points this season,” LaVelle said. “Michaela isn’t going to have to pitch every game. We’ve had to go to her probably more than I would have liked to in the past. She’s going to be able to hand it off to Kylie, Amanda Wygant and Baily Clear. That’s going to help. She’s not going to have to do everything herself.”

While Owens and Woodward are cornerstones on the infield corners, there’s also experience in the outfield with center fielder Megan Ruppert (.319 average) and left fielder Diana Mendoza (.290 average). Mendoza has piled up 132 hits during her career as a Bulldog. Ruppert made a seamless transition after making her way to Seward via McCook Community College. LaVelle also plans to find room for freshman Taryn Thomas, who hit a school record .696 during her senior campaign at Blue Valley Northwest High School (Kan.). Another freshman capable of making an impact is Ronee Watson (Riverside, Calif.), who figures to see time at first base when Woodward takes the circle.

In the middle infield, Leah Kalkwarf and Jamie Lefebure have swapped positions with Kalkwarf going to short and Lefebure moving to second base. Kalkwarf batted .310 with 11 doubles in her freshman season. Lefebure also possesses a strong arm and is a plus defender.

LaVelle might have trouble narrowing down a nine-person lineup with the array of heavy hitters at his disposal. Concordia hit .336 over 46 games in 2016.

“We’ve got great offensive firepower,” LaVelle said. “I would hate to be an opposing pitcher trying to dissect our lineup. Right now we’re looking at 12 to 14 girls that could really contribute with their bats. Any given day, one through nine is going to be pretty crazy. I would say seven or eight of those girls have home run potential as well. They’re not just hitting for base hits or playing small ball, they have the ability to take it deep. It’s definitely going to be fun.”

The biggest focus is making sure the fun continues throughout the GPAC slate. Concordia hopes a different approach will keep it fresh when the most significant part of the season beckons.

“Last year we started off really strong,” Huff said. “I think at the end of the season things fell out of place. We had some injuries that held us back a little bit and we were getting a little worn out. This year we’re taking a much better schedule as far as how we’re working out and how we’re practicing. We’re trying to have our best play during our conference season. We don’t want to just start off strong and then fall off later in the season. This year we’re working harder, but in a more organized and easier way that will really meet our potential.”

The Bulldogs open up the 2017 season at this weekend’s Cowtown Classic (Feb. 10-11). Concordia will play three times on Friday and then twice more on Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas.