Members of the Concordia University Softball program reported to campus in August eager to wipe the slate clean following a season of learning and growing in 2023. Entering his second year as head coach, Brock Culler sees a Bulldog team that is trending in the right direction, led by a group of returning All-GPAC juniors in Hanna Bowers, Aubrey Bruning and Kylie Shottenkirk.
Judging by the fall returns, Culler believes the strengths of the 2024 squad will be its pitching and defense. Concordia hopes it can lean on those facets of the game as the Bulldogs hone their offensive skills over the winter months.
“I really liked our pitching and defense this fall,” Culler said. “It was a big improvement from the spring, there’s no doubt. Offensively, it was a little bit like last year where we’d get things going but couldn’t string hits together. We had a couple games where we did it well. Since then, our focus has been on offense. We’re working really hard on that. I’m optimistic we’ll get that turned around.”
‘Fall ball’ officially spanned seven intensive weeks of practice with five game days situated within that period. Culler presided over matchups with two in-state NCAA Division II opponents, three junior college foes and one NAIA adversary. Concordia more than held its own against D2 competition while flashing the leather and the budding talents of junior pitcher Megan Eurich. Culler and his staff made liberal use of the bench while juggling the lineup in order to get a look at the entire roster.
The fall seemed to validate Culler’s belief that the addition of freshman shortstop Laycee Josoff would allow the complete picture to crystallize. The Yutan High School product starred as one of the top prep shortstops in the entire state of Nebraska. Her arrival will shift the likes of Bowers and Shottenkirk to more natural positions.
“Laycee is not only a really good player, she brings a ton of energy,” Culler said. “Her being a true shortstop allows us to move the pieces around to where everyone is comfortable. Defensively, it makes us so much better. Madi Cushing is playing really well in the middle infield. It was tough because Hanna missed about three weeks after she hurt her ankle. Aubriana Krieser had a great fall. Jennifer Katz is a really good surprise. She’s a JUCO transfer from Kansas (Southwestern CC). She’s a tall, athletic kid with a lot of power. It was really good to see all these new faces and watch them compete.”
Eurich (Gretna, Neb.) broke out as one of the surprises of 2023. She appeared in the circle in 24 games last season and racked up 108 strikeouts to go with a 3.76 ERA in 136 innings. Culler says Eurich has continued to add velocity this fall and was especially dominant in her outing versus Wayne State College. The pitching staff also returns Brooke Townsend and will get a boost from freshman Kaylei Denison of Waverly, Neb. Denison immediately became the staff’s hardest thrower. Said Culler of Eurich, “Her fall was great. We scripted these games, so we had lineup changes at certain moments where we took her out, but Megan was dealing, especially against Wayne State. She’s been outstanding. She is our clearcut No. 1.”
The pitching staff isn’t the only area of the team that has greater depth. Culler believes this roster has more quality of depth all over the diamond. There’s a nice mix of veterans and talented freshmen. In addition to the three All-GPAC award winners already mentioned, returners with ample experience include Taylor Glause, Zoie Isom, Julia Van Wey and Delanie Voshell. Collectively, the chemistry is coming together the way Culler had hoped.
“The energy level this fall has been fantastic,” Culler said. “How I knew the returners were bought in, as soon as last season was over, they were reaching out to the freshman class. They invited them on to campus and were hanging out outside of softball stuff. After each drill, people are running around giving each other high fives. The energy level is great. They’re joking around and having fun. Everything is cooking the way we want it to cook.”
Culler still has time to tweak the recipe as the coldest months of the year hit Nebraska. After having played extensively at shortstop and second base through her first two years, Shottenkirk has been seeing time at first base. That is also the preferred position for Aubriana Krieser, the younger sister of Concordia Women’s Basketball player Abby Krieser. Aubriana set a new home run standard at Lincoln North Star High School. Culler will undoubtedly want his lineup to include the bats of both Shottenkirk and Krieser. Bowers held down the shortstop for much of 2023 and will shift elsewhere as Josoff claims the position.
The continued progression of each of those key players should make for a more potent offense. The Bulldogs struggled to push across runs during GPAC play in 2023 and averaged 4.2 runs per game over the course of the season. The influx of talent figures to provide the necessary boost.
As of the fall, the team’s pitching and defense are ahead of schedule and Culler isn’t worried about the level of enthusiasm within the team. As far as Culler is concerned, the season can’t get here soon enough.
“Right now, they’re doing scripted workouts on their own and strength and conditioning with Coach Berner,” Culler said. “The two weeks after Thanksgiving, we’ll have practice. Then we’ll go to Christmas break and they’ll have a few things they have to accomplish. When we come back Jan. 8, we’re ready to go. The two weeks after Thanksgiving are going to be scripted like we’re preparing for a game. We’re going to get after them and it’s going to be high energy. I’m going to push this team harder than I pushed them this fall. I think they’re ready for that next step. Then when we do come back in January, we’re ready to go.”
The 2024 Concordia Softball schedule can be found HERE. The season will open with two games versus NCAA Division II Minnesota State University Moorehead on Feb. 3.