There is always a period of adjustment when a new head coach walks through the door. Such is life for members of the Concordia University softball program. Shawn Semler, most recently the head softball coach at Waverly High School, has stepped into the role of head coach, which had been filled for the previous five years by Todd LaVelle.
Judging by the fall, the Bulldogs probably won’t shy away from talking about high hopes for 2019. The roster is flush with talent.
Says Semler, “It’s pretty exciting to walk into a program when you have the reigning GPAC Player of the Year (Hhana Haro) and you have incoming freshmen like Camry Moore. That’s an easy one to say, ‘You know what, I think I should go there.’”
Semler led his team to a perfect 7-0 record this fall while faced with an exhibition schedule that included GPAC rival Hastings. The events that took place at Plum Creek Park in recent weeks did nothing to stamp out high expectations. The 2018 squad wound up at 21-21 overall, but don’t let that record fool you. The ’18 team was not all that far off from having things click.
Almost every key player returns from the 2018 team, including Haro, who took the conference by storm as a rookie. Outfielder MacKinsey Schmidt and second baseman Leah Kalkwarf also have first team All-GPAC accolades to their credit. That’s really just a start. Competition for spots in the lineup will be fierce. That competition began this fall.
“It’s going to be difficult for Coach Semler to set a lineup,” Kalkwarf said. “There are countless girls on the roster that are ready to compete at the level it takes to win a championship. The key I have learned in this game is that for a team to actually be successful it takes more than hard work. It takes a team that is unified and that loves each other. Coach Semler is pushing for us to reach that.”
Semler was named head coach in late June and began meeting his players throughout the summer and as they arrived for this semester. Practice began with the second week of the semester. Despite a sometimes cool and sometimes rainy fall, the Bulldogs packed a lot of action into a short timeframe. It’s safe to say that Semler was not disappointed by what he saw.
Let’s start with Haro, who hit an incredible .494 as a freshman. It’s not supposed to be that easy. The third baseman from Garden Grove, Calif., just makes it look that way.
“She exceeded every expectation that I had,” said Semler of Haro. “She swings the bat really well, which is probably what made her the GPAC Player of the Year. But defensively everything is so routine for her. She just makes the plays. Every throw she makes to first is the exact same throw. Those are little things that I love about her. Plus she’s one of the most humble kids. She just goes about her business.”
It’s not exactly going out on a limb to say that the pitching staff will be improved in the spring of 2019. The top arms from last season are back in the form of Grace Bernhardt and Brittany Woolridge. Bernhardt was another of the standouts of a 2017-18 freshman class that made a big impact. Meanwhile, Woolridge has the physical tools to be even better in 2019.
The ace of the staff might just be Moore, who led Crete High School to a state championship as a prep senior. Few players have entered the program with more hoopla than Moore. Like Haro, she has the humility to handle success. She got her feet wet this fall and more than held her own in the circle.
“Camry is just as humble as Hhana,” Semler said. “I’ve seen Camry for a couple of years now as a high school coach. Last year we played her three times in one week. It’s one of those things where she’s the one you want to try to beat so bad, but she’s just so good.”
A strong pitching staff is part of the equation for a squad that Semler believes is stacked up the middle. The double play combo of seniors Kalkwarf at second and Jamie Lefebure at shortstop will be as experienced as any in the nation. Then there’s Schmidt in center field. She made her fair share of highlight reel grabs as a freshman.
That ‘middle’ that Semler speaks of is like a mini Crete High School reunion. Lefebure, Moore and Schmidt are all Crete graduates.
“If I was going to start a team from scratch, I would want to be strong up the middle,” Semler said. “You want to have strong defensive players at those spots. We have that for sure with Leah and Jamie. They are as good as advertised. I haven’t seen Allysia Thayer much yet, but Tricia Tripp came in and caught well. With MacKinsey Schmidt, she’s dynamic. She can do a lot of things and she’s fast. The one game she hit two home runs for us – and she can go get a ball.”
Semler went on to guess that few teams in the GPAC will have such stability and reliability up the middle. One thing this 2019 team will have more of than the 2018 squad had is experience. The current sophomore class will have a big say in where the journey ends this coming spring.
“We have an amazing sophomore class that has some experience with the competition of the GPAC,” Kalkwarf said. “We also have some key freshmen players that will have to step up to hold this team to the standards Coach Semler is setting. We are capable of winning a championship if we continue to work hard, keep each other accountable and grow as a team.”
This is a program with something to prove after an up-and-down 2018 season. No one is denying the talent that fills the dugout. It’s a matter of how it all meshes together under a new head coach. Some questions will begin to be answered in February when the season officially gets underway. Until then, the Bulldogs will get back to work and make use of some of the best indoor facilities Semler has had in any of his coaching stops.
“I’ve had some teams that have been very successful in the past,” Semler said. “It’s just human nature to look around and wonder how we would do against some of my old teams. I’m excited about this group. It’s a very, very talented group. We were playing games and we had seven or eight kids who couldn’t compete yet because of surgery and other circumstances. We didn’t have those kids and I still felt like our depth is going to be really, really good. To start on this team, you’re going to have to step to the plate and really do the job.”