Head coach: Todd LaVelle (125-71, 5th year)
2017 record: 34-14, 14-6 GPAC (T-2nd)
Key returners: Maddie Fousek (IF); Leah Kalkwarf (2B); Jamie Lefebure (SS); Delaney Nance (IF/P); Janey Pasold (OF).
Key losses: Kylie Harpst (OF/P); Diana Mendoza (OF); Autumn Owens (3B); Megan Ruppert (OF); Ronee Watson (IF); Michaela Woodward (P/1B).
Key newcomers: Hhana Haro (IF); Kenna Heath (IF); Tori Homolka (IF); Elanna Osthoff (OF); Mackinsey Schmidt (OF); Allysia Thayer (C); Brittany Woolridge (P).
2017 GPAC all-conference: Leah Kalkwarf (first team); Megan Ruppert (first team); Michaela Woodward (first team); Kylie Harpst (second team); Autumn Owens (second team).
The GPAC preseason poll is a clear sign of the respect the Concordia softball program has earned under fifth-year head coach Todd LaVelle. Despite the departures of four first or second team all-conference choices, including the 2017 team’s top two pitchers, the Bulldogs checked in at No. 2 in the conference rating. LaVelle has proven that his program can withstand roster turnover. His teams have won at least 29 games in each of the past four seasons.
The 2017 campaign delivered 34 wins (second most in school history) and a tie for second place in the GPAC standings. This team will look totally different, but the expectations are largely the same. Concordia hopes to make a run at getting back to the national tournament, where it appeared in 2014 and 2015.
Said LaVelle, “We’re going to look at a lot of things. I think our two trips down to Kansas are going to tell us a lot. We’re probably going to play 15-16 girls. We’re going to get ready. That’s going to springboard us into Tucson, Arizona, where we play 11 games.
“It’s a tough conference and anybody can win. I was definitely pleased, but yet surprised, with the No. 2 preseason ranking because we lost two pitchers. I told the girls that a lot of coaches are respecting you. We also know we’re going to have to bring it every day.”
A lot of the thunder from last year’s lineup is gone with Kylie Harpst, Autumn Owens, Megan Ruppert and Michaela Woodward having moved on. That makes second baseman Leah Kalkwarf the headlining returner. Voted a team captain, Kalkwarf starred as the team’s most consistent hitter last spring. She may be small in stature, but Kalkwarf packs a punch. She hit .366 with 16 doubles and three home runs in a first team all-conference sophomore season.
While Kalkwarf is the anchor of the lineup, she admits that there are some question marks that can’t be answered until the games are played.
Said Kalkwarf, “I could see us being very good and upholding that second place (preseason ranking) or even being No. 1. As we always say, when a team gets on the field it’s whoever wants to win the most and be there the most. We’ve seen it a few times the past few years. You might lose to a team that you thought wasn’t very good. It just kind of depends. Everything is kind of unknown until you step on the field.”
In LaVelle’s eyes, the hitting ability of this team is not an unknown. He’s confident the new-look 2018 lineup can be just as productive as the 2017 group that averaged more than six runs per game. Jamie Lefebure returns at short, where she’ll again team with Kalkwarf for an experienced middle infield combo. Lefebure improved significantly as a sophomore, batting .306 while again showcasing a rocket launcher of an arm. Other returners who played extensively last season are senior Janey Pasold (.320 BA) and junior Maddie Fousek (37 games in 2017).
A talented recruiting class factors in next. Kalkwarf and Lefebure could very well have a freshman next to them at the corner spots. LaVelle has raved about rookie Hhana Haro (Garden Grove, Calif.), who appears ready to contribute in a big way with the bat. Freshman Tori Homolka (Swanton, Neb.) has made a strong case for the third base job. In the outfield, transfer Elanna Osthoff (Lebadie, Mo.) and freshman Mackinsey Schmidt (Crete, Neb.) are in competition for starting spots. Additionally, LaVelle will have to make room for University of Sioux Falls transfer Kenna Heath, a Seward native who hit .341 as a freshman at the NCAA Division II level.
“It’s no secret that we’re going to be leaning on the youth of this team,” LaVelle said. “We have four or five freshmen that have the ability to start for us. Hhana Haro from California has been doing a great job. She has probably some of the quickest hands that I’ve ever coached. She’s going to be a great hitter.”
Freshman Allysia Thayer (Etiwanda, Calif.) has the inside track on the catching spot. She’ll be working closely with a pitching staff that is retooling after the graduation of Harpst and Woodward, who threw a combined 267.1 innings last season. The new ace of the staff is Brittany Woolridge (Tucson, Ariz.), a transfer from Texas A&M University Commerce. LaVelle also has confidence in calling upon sophomores Baily Clear and Delaney Nance and freshman Grace Bernhardt (St. Charles, Mo.).
“The whole pitching staff is probably deeper than it’s ever been in my five years here at Concordia,” LaVelle said. “Brittany came in and had a great fall. She had a little injury in the last couple weeks that may sideline her until we get down to Arizona (spring break trip), but if that happens it’s going to open the door for three other pitchers. Baily Clear, a left-handed thrower, has done a good job and had an outstanding fall.”
Some questions will begin to be answered on Feb. 17 when the Bulldogs are scheduled to open up the 2018 season with a doubleheader at Tabor College. Between now and then, LaVelle will continue to try to mesh all the aforementioned pieces together. Based on the past four years, it’s a good bet that Concordia will find a way to be in the 30-win ballpark and to be a dangerous team by the time postseason play rolls around.
LaVelle can’t help but talk excitedly about his lineup. Hitting has been a primary focus during the offseason.
“We used to use maybe 60 percent of practice time on hitting,” LaVelle said. “We bumped that up to probably 70-75 percent. Even though pitching and defense are important, you’re going to find out that we’re going to be pretty strong one through nine in our order. I think I also have four or five girls that I can bring in from the bench when someone’s not up on their game. That’s exciting.”
The Bulldogs are hoping a potent lineup can help lead them back to the national tournament. No current players were on the roster when Concordia earned its first-ever national tournament win in 2015. The Bulldogs are allowing themselves to dream about experiencing that kind of glory in 2018.
Said Kalkwarf, “If we made it to the national tournament it would be something great. I think we’re preparing ourselves. We’re working at it right now in the preseason to mentally say that we can do it. If we got there it would be awesome. It would not only help us get ready for next season, but having that experience being able to go to a national tournament with Concordia and my teammates would be awesome.”