In 2014 then first-year head coach Todd LaVelle guided the Concordia University softball team to its first-ever national tournament appearance. A year later the Bulldogs captured the program’s first-ever win on the national stage. In addition, Concordia’s 61 wins over the past two seasons are the third most over a two-year stretch in the more-than 40-year history of Bulldog softball.
Under LaVelle, Concordia has taken a never-be-satisfied approach. Perhaps cliché, maybe a bit cheesy, but slogans such as “why not us?” and “we can do this” have served as unifying rallying cries. Even in a campaign that had come with disappointment until a seemingly improbable GPAC tournament title, the 2015 Bulldogs managed to do something no other team in school history had ever accomplished.
“We talked about it a year ago that we were going to come in here and just getting here wasn’t good enough,” LaVelle said after his squad’s postseason run concluded on Tuesday. “We got embarrassed a little bit (by Oklahoma City University on Monday) against a good team. The girls could have folded. They didn’t. They came back and were eager to play. They were loose and they beat a very good Grand View team.”
Under LaVelle, Concordia has shown a tendency to rise to the occasion in big games. The Bulldogs have reached the GPAC championship series in each of the past two seasons and they own a 10-3 conference tournament record during that stretch. Last year the ‘fightin’ LaVelles’ came up just short in a 4-3 loss to No. 6 St. Gregory’s University in the program’s first-ever national tournament game.
On Tuesday, Concordia stayed alive in the Oklahoma City bracket by sending Grand View (receiving votes nationally) packing with a 6-4 victory that had come on the heels of a blowout loss to the No. 1-ranked Stars. It was another example of how quickly LaVelle and company can turn things around even at the bleakest of moments.
“We just didn’t think about it too much,” sophomore Diana Mendoza said of the loss on Monday. “We just shook it off real quick. We went to iHop, had some fun and then came back the next day like it didn’t happen.”
After leading Lincoln North Star High School to a record of 171-91 and a state runner-up finish during his tenure, LaVelle has cultivated a roster that now believes it can win not just at the conference level, but on the national scale. And he’s kept alive a winning tradition. Concordia softball has produced above .500 records in 19 of the last 20 seasons.
Now the question is what’s next. LaVelle has his sights set on doing what it takes to eventually reach the NAIA Softball World Series, which hosts the last 10 teams left standing after the completion of opening-round play.
“I told the coaching staff and the players that I want to come away from this saying what can we do to be at the next level,” LaVelle said. “Now we’ve won a game, we’ve been here. We want to be competing to get to the final 10. I think they’re starting to know what it takes. We’re probably going to have to work a little bit harder.
“It’s been a great experience. A lot of teams have been home for a week or 10 days. We were still playing. It was a great learning experience for everybody.”
LaVelle will be able to build his 2016 team around standouts such as Mendoza, slugger Julia Tyree, ace pitcher Michaela Woodward and an exciting group of recruits. Transfers Taylor Flodman (formerly of NCAA Division I Creighton University) and Kylie Harpst (formerly of NCAA Division II Pittsburg State) are expected to be key contributors. Both practiced and traveled with the team in 2015 but did not appear in any games.
This year’s late-season run will provide a springboard for another campaign that will come with high expectations.
Said Mendoza, “We’ve got a lot of new players coming in so I think we’re going to do a lot better next year, too.”