By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications
Look closely at the team photo of the 2015 GPAC tournament champion softball team and you’ll notice two Bulldog players in the back row, neither wearing a jersey. Lincoln North Star High School alums Kylie Harpst and Taylor Huff (maiden name Flodman) spent one long, slow year sitting, watching and cheering.
They looked on this past May as the Concordia University softball team made its second-straight national tournament appearance under head coach Todd LaVelle. As redshirts, it’s all they could do. Says LaVelle, “There was more than once that they were just beating at the drum to get back onto the field.”
The wait is nearly over for Harpst and Huff, who share much in common. Where should we start? They both played for LaVelle at North Star, helping the 2009 Navigators squad to a state runner-up finish. Both immensely talented, they then took different paths before landing at Concordia. Kylie played at NCAA Division II Pittsburg State University while Taylor’s journey has taken her from NCAA Division I Creighton University to the University of Colorado Colorado Springs to Disney World as an intern.
Huff had seen enough of Mickey Mouse and Harpst was ready to get closer to her hometown of Lincoln. Now here, they are ready to lead the Bulldogs back to the national tournament. Neither exactly planned on sprouting up years later as teammates once again, not far from where they starred on prep softball diamonds. As LaVelle said, “I think God definitely had a plan in getting both of them here.”
An encounter LaVelle had at the state softball tournament with Taylor’s grandfather got the ball rolling for the standout who hit .504 her senior year of high school. Still working at Disney World at the time, Taylor felt a world away from her hometown of Eagle, Neb., and jumped at the chance to reunite with her former high school coach.
“I never thought I’d play softball again until LaVelle ran into my grandpa at the state tournament,” Taylor said. “He asked, ‘what’s Taylor up to?’ I was really, really homesick so I decided to come back home. I wanted to finish my college education and I got the opportunity to come here and play with LaVelle. I love him and everything’s been great.”
Like Taylor, Kylie did not have the experience she had hoped for at her first college destination. Unaware that her former North Star teammate, many miles away, had the same thoughts about reconnecting with LaVelle, Kylie was serious about Concordia. Her dad made a phone call to set the wheels in motion. Kylie would be a Bulldog.
Recalls Kylie, “I decided to come here and LaVelle told me, ‘Taylor might be coming.’ I was like, ‘What? No way.’ Obviously we played high school together so it’s pretty awesome.”
Harpst and Huff arrived at Concordia in the fall of 2014 knowing it would be a school year that would demand their patience. Kylie underwent surgery on her pitching arm that October and was forced to sit out. Meanwhile, LaVelle came to an agreement that Taylor would redshirt her first season on campus.
But LaVelle wanted his two talented transfers to feel welcome as members of the team, even if they weren’t playing. They soaked up all of the road trips they could. They took stats. They acted as student coaches, offering advice and encouragement. Still, it’s difficult for fierce competitors to be reduced to bystanders.
“It was hard because some of the games were so close and you want to get out there,” Kylie said. “It’s like, ‘Gosh, I want to try. I want to do it and be the girl.’ But you can’t. You have to sit there and watch. You pick up some things and you can still help. You talk to teammates about what they may not see and help them out.”
Taylor, a former first team all-state performer just like Kylie, has not played in a countable collegiate game since 2013. Thankfully, she had Kylie to sit alongside of while peering through all of those dugout-lined chain-link fences.
“It was really, really nice,” Taylor said. “I hadn’t been in college for a semester because I was in Florida. I was coming back to college and back to Nebraska, but it was something completely different – totally new. Having another person there with me to sit out and get back into the groove of things was great, especially Kylie. We were close in high school. We knew each other. It was comforting. I wasn’t the loner.”
LaVelle calls the melding of Kylie, Taylor and Concordia a “natural fit.” The third-year Bulldog skipper, referred to by Taylor as the “best coach I’ve ever had,” gushes when discussing what two of his newest student-athletes bring to the table. It’s not only about what they can do on the field.
“Both of them have Division I talent. I truly believe that,” LaVelle said. “Bottom line on those two girls is they’re outstanding human beings. Their work ethic is right there with anyone else I’ve ever had. Together I think they probably own 20-plus records at North Star. They’re absolutely awesome players.”
The 2016 season is sure to bring back memories as Harpst whizzes fastballs to Huff, who is expected to handle catching duties as she did for LaVelle at North Star. Neither can wait for that opportunity to come again this spring.
“I’m super excited,” Kylie said. “She caught me in high school. We both played on the same select team, the Swingers. We’ve known each other for a long time. I think we have that pitcher-catcher connection where you know what they’re going to do.”
Huff and LaVelle both used the words “full circle” to describe the circumstances that brought them all back together through the game of softball. Harpst and Huff ventured away from home, experienced new things – good and bad – and realized they belonged somewhere else. That somewhere is Concordia, playing for the coach they like more than other.
Huff says she’s at a place where “we feel like we can all work together to achieve one goal.” Added Harpst, “I’ve made so many friendships (at Concordia). It’s just amazing. You feel a bond and you trust them.”
Soon it will be back to the diamond for the former ‘North Stars.’ You’ll be hard pressed to find two players more eager for that opportunity than Harpst or Huff, both firm believers that Concordia is headed to national tournaments this year and next as they exhaust their final two years of eligibility. Says Harpst, “We have heart. We want it.”