The 2017 Concordia softball team put together one of the winningest seasons in program history. Now the page has been turned and the Bulldogs are moving on after saying goodbye to many key figures from last season. Concordia has played seven games this fall with an eye on remaking the pitching staff and renewing a winning culture.
Heading into his fifth season leading the program, head coach Todd LaVelle says the approach has been altered in noticeable ways since the Bulldogs returned to campus for the fall semester.
“We’ve done things quite a bit different this year,” LaVelle said. “In my first couple years I felt it was important to establish a winning attitude right away. It wasn’t necessarily win at all costs, but we believed we needed more of a laid back approach this year. That starts with practices. We’ve tried to practice fairly hard Monday and Tuesday, have a team bonding activity on Wednesday, practice again Thursday and have an intrasquad scrimmage on Friday. That’s what a typical week has looked like.”
No longer will you find the faces of former reliable veterans Kylie Harpst, Autumn Owens, Megan Ruppert or Michaela Woodward. In other words, it’s time for a new wave of Bulldogs to make their mark. Their time has begun this fall with promising results. In wins over conference rivals Hastings and Northwestern, Concordia piled up a combined 20 runs.
Of course the rock in the Bulldog lineup figures to be junior second baseman Leah Kalkwarf, who batted a team high .366 last season in a first team all-conference performance. Crazy hot over the second half of 2017, Kalkwarf looks to be even better in 2018, according to LaVelle. She’s been awarded captain status and will be counted upon heavily as a leader.
“Her confidence level is there,” LaVelle said. “I haven’t had to pay too close attention to her this fall because every time I put her in, she hits the ball extremely well. Last week at Morningside she almost hit for the cycle. She’s a natural leader. The girls follow her. Her confidence level is through the roof right now and we want to continue to see that.”
Kalkwarf and others like fellow middle infielder Jamie Lefebure (junior from Crete, Neb.) are the known commodities, but the unknowns will have much to say about the trajectory of the 2018 team. Nearly half the roster is comprised of a freshman class that will be needed for significant contributions.
That’s why this time in the fall is so crucial. LaVelle and his staff will also have the cold winter months to continue to prepare a team with just one senior: outfielder Janey Pasold, another captain alongside Kalkwarf, Kaitlyn Buresh and Brittany Woolridge. Crete native and speedy outfielder Mackinsey Schmidt is one member of the talented class of rookies.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” LaVelle said. “There are times when I see us in midseason form like when we played Northwestern this fall. I think we had 13 or 14 hits in that game and played really well. Other times we look like a young team starting to develop. I brought in 16 freshmen. Anytime you do that and try to mix them with 16 or 17 returners, you’re going to have some growing pains. We want to get them out of the way this fall.”
Such growing pains will be more quickly overcome if Concordia can find solutions in the circle. Over the past three years, the Bulldogs relied upon the rubber-armed Woodward to throw a combined 510 innings. In a legendary effort in 2015, Woodward threw every inning of GPAC postseason play while leading the Bulldogs to a conference championship and national tournament appearance.
LaVelle and company would like to believe that transfer Brittany Woolridge will be the next strong-armed hurler to help rekindle that championship glory. Woolridge, a transfer from NCAA Division II Texas A&M University-Commerce, is one of four pitchers LaVelle has used during fall action.
“Brittany Woolridge has had an outstanding fall,” LaVelle said. “She’s hit the ground running. We also have some other exciting options. Baily Clear has really impressed me. As a coach you always look for players to give you that confidence to put them in. She has my confidence. She’s thrown a lot of innings for us this fall and has gotten tremendously better than she was a year ago. Then we have a promising freshman Grace Bernhardt from the St. Louis area. She’s going to throw some innings for us. I’ve been impressed with our pitching staff.”
Like many teams at Concordia, the softball team has immersed itself within the community. On one particular day this fall, the Bulldogs worked with the Krieser family to clean up trash over a three-mile stretch along Highway 34 just outside of town. It’s a very meaningful goodwill gesture to the Kriesers, who lost a daughter in a car accident on Highway 34.
Such community outreach is part of how the Bulldogs hope to build a winning culture both on and off the diamond. Despite the youth, Concordia aspires to be a top-of-the-GPAC contender once again. LaVelle’s teams have averaged more than 30 wins per season. What his players do between now and the season opener on Feb. 17 will prove critical.
“You always walk a fine line between whether we’re doing too much or too little,” LaVelle says of the offseason focus. “Our attitude this fall was to be more laid back than we have in the past. We moved our weight room times to the afternoon to they can sleep. We’re doing our conditioning after practice. We’re trying to keep them fresh for this spring. End of April and beginning of May, we want them to be hungry. We don’t want them burned out.”