Conference play kick starts on Saturday

By Jacob Knabel on Mar. 15, 2017 in Softball

SEWARD, Neb. – Due to postponements of doubleheaders originally scheduled on Tuesday and Wednesday (March 14-15), the Concordia University softball team has had to wait a bit longer to play host for the first time in 2017. That wait will end on Saturday when warmer weather helps ring in the start of conference play at Plum Creek Park. Northwestern (10-9) will serve as the opponent for a doubleheader set to get going at 1 p.m. CT.

Both games of the twin bill will be shown live on the Concordia Sports Network.

Fourth-year head coach Todd LaVelle’s squad enjoyed a successful stay at the Tucson Invitational, which came to an end on March 10. The Bulldogs went 7-2 on the trip that included mostly fellow NAIA opponents. Junior Michaela Woodward was especially impressive in the desert, where she tossed a total of 23.1 innings and allowed just two earned runs while striking out 16 hitters. For her efforts, Woodward earned the GPAC pitcher of the week award.

While LaVelle expects the bats to heat up, the pitching staff has yielded results that have had much to do with the team’s 13-5 start (second best record among GPAC squads). Woodward is now 5-3 with a 1.23 ERA in 51.1 innings. AJ Wygant earned a five-inning shutout in Tucson and has a 1.78 ERA in 19.2 innings. Kylie Harpst, a senior in her second year playing for the Bulldogs, sports a 3-1 record, a 2.74 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 30.2 innings. The staff ERA of 2.16 ranks 25th best out of all teams in the NAIA.

The meat of the lineup is formed by the likes of Kylie Harpst (.291, five doubles, three triples, 13 RBIs), Autumn Owens (.340, four home runs, 14 RBIs, .642 slugging), Megan Ruppert (.360, four doubles, six RBIs) and Woodward (.346, two home runs, 12 RBIs). Owens rose to stardom last season as a sophomore when she hit .392 and equaled a school single-season record with nine home runs. She already has hit four home runs in 2017 and has 17 for her career.

In the GPAC preseason coaches’ poll, Concordia was pegged third and Northwestern was picked eighth. The Bulldogs are aiming to move up from their fifth-place finish in 2016. The Bulldogs have gone 10-10 in the GPAC in each of the last two seasons. The 2015 team caught fire in the postseason, winning the GPAC tournament and then advancing to the national tournament. LaVelle, who recently surpassed 100 career collegiate coaching wins, will attempt to lead the program back to nationals for the third time in four years.

The highlight of Northwestern’s season to this point was a 7-4 upset of fourth-ranked St. Gregory’s University (Okla.) in the first game of a doubleheader on March 6. The Red Raiders then dropped four of their next five games. Northwestern has scored 102 runs and has allowed 107 through its first 19 games. The Red Raiders (20-29, 8-14 GPAC last season) are batting .261 as a team. The team’s leading hitter is Jessica Rayela, who is batting .382 with five extra base hits and 12 RBIs.

Up next after Northwestern will be next Tuesday’s (March 21) doubleheader versus Doane (13-11), a 2016 national qualifier. First pitch from Plum Creek Park will be at 5 p.m. CT.