By sheer winning percentage, the 2019 Concordia softball team achieved at a rate that few others in school history have since the program officially started varsity competition in 1973. The continued rise in performance from the sophomore class and the key additions of a couple of freshmen in particular made life easier as the Bulldogs got accustomed to new head coach Shawn Semler. At one point, Concordia even received votes in the NAIA coaches’ poll.
All things considered, Semler sees a lot of unfinished business in the aftermath of being eliminated from the GPAC tournament on May 3. There were moments throughout the season that perhaps foreshadowed where the program could be headed in 2020 and beyond.
“I was happy overall,” Semler said. “When you look back, there were some things we did really well. They bought in to a lot of the things we want to do. They’re going to find that changes a little next year with a new group coming in. What we had this year was a group that could play softball at a pretty high level. The lack of consistency is probably the thing I was most disappointed in. I know we can play at a high level more consistently. There were teams we split with that we felt like we should have been able to beat twice. We want the attitude to be that we’re going to go there and beat you.”
The Bulldogs concluded the campaign at 28-12 overall, with rough spring weather partly to blame for them falling just shy of the eighth 30-win season in program history. Proof of the ’19 team’s high ceiling was on display in Tucson, Ariz., when it claimed a 6-1 victory over a Valley City State University (N.D.) squad getting ready to play in the NAIA Softball World Series. Another signature win came in the form of a 1-0 decision over then 20th-ranked Midland in a nine-inning pitcher’s duel that featured Concordia’s Camry Moore against Jaylee Hinrichs.
Semler knew he was inheriting a talented roster that featured 2018 GPAC Player of the Year Hhana Haro, the ringleader of the aforementioned blossoming sophomore group that will transition to junior status in 2019-20. Haro continued to shine this spring while being pushed for the unofficial title of team MVP by fellow sophomore Tori Homolka. The rise to stardom of Homolka became a major storyline in 2019. Homolka had a two-homer game versus Doane and a walk-off three-run homer to beat Dordt as part of her breakout season.
“I just love the way she swings it,” Semler said of Homolka. “She talked to me one time and told me, ‘I know I’m batting leadoff, but I don’t like to take the first pitch a lot.’ I was like, ‘Then go get it.’ I want her to go after pitches she likes. She’s always getting dirty and diving all over. She probably gets more upset about a loss than anybody in the program and those are the kids I want to surround myself with.”
While Haro and Homolka slugged away as the team’s top two hitters, Moore and senior Brittany Woolridge combined to give the Bulldogs arguably the GPAC’s best one-two punch in the circle. Woolridge settled in, in year two of her time at Concordia. She won her first eight decisions of the season and was named first team all-conference. Twice she fired shutouts against GPAC foes.
A Crete High School product, Moore entered the program with incredibly high expectations after a sterling prep career that included a state championship as a senior. Moore is just scratching the surface in regards to her potential as a two-way player.
“I think she handled it great,” Semler said of the expectations placed upon Moore. “I know they were probably heavy on her. I think she lived up to it. She threw lights out down the stretch. She really, really showed that she could throw both ends of a doubleheader. She hit .322 and she was disappointed about that. Her upside offensively is astronomical. I think she’s going to flourish and get better and better. It’s going to be fun to watch.”
Moore is good friends with another freshman in York native Kylee Nixon, who also figures to have a significant role within the program moving forward. Nixon eventually won the majority of playing time at second base and hit .431 with nine extra base hits and finished third in the GPAC in batting average. Nixon delivered a walk-off RBI single to defeat Mount Marty in the conference tournament and keep the team’s season alive at the moment. In addition, other young players such as sophomores in catcher Allysia Thayer (second team All-GPAC) and center fielder MacKinsey Schmidt were regulars in the lineup.
Woolridge was one of eight seniors that have graduated and moved on. Among that group, second baseman Leah Kalkwarf (2017 first team All-GPAC) and shortstop Jamie Lefebure were key four-year contributors. While that senior bunch will be missed, so much returns that the Bulldogs are certain to generate some preseason buzz heading into 2020.
“When I talk about being excited for next year, it sure doesn’t hurt knowing that Haro, Homolka, Thayer, Moore, Nixon, Schmidt and all of those girls are coming back,” Semler said. “They’re going to keep getting better. Now, how much better can Hhana Haro get? I don’t know. She’s so talented.
I’ve been writing a lot of lineups out and thinking about what will jell. You talk about a kid you want up to bat in a big situation, it’s Kylee Nixon. She doesn’t give anything away. It’s fun to play around with lineups and get excited about it.”
Semler is already looking forward to seeing his student-athletes return for the fall when Concordia plans to host a highly competitive tournament that will serve as a preseason barometer for all squads involved. It’s all part of the process for Semler in preparing his team to think with a championship mindset. The Bulldogs want to be playing much deeper into May in 2020.
Says Semler, “I think they’re going to learn right away in the fall (where we’re at) because it’s going to be so much different than last fall. It’s going to be an eye opener. Now that we’ve got a year under our belt with a talented team, my expectations are that we take the next step and be in the mix for the conference championship. Our practices are going to be amped up a little bit more. Now the practices are geared towards winning a conference title.”