A 17-game fall exhibition slate did nothing to dampen the spirits of a Concordia University softball program coming off back-to-back appearances at the NAIA national tournament. If anything, it only whetted appetites for spring 2016.
“The attitude and the vibe is a lot better than a year ago,” said third-year head coach Todd LaVelle. “I think we’re way ahead of where we were a year ago as far as team chemistry. The seniors have done a nice job getting the kids together with different team bonding exercises. It just seems the team fits pretty well together. It’s been said a couple of times that they feel they’re better than last year. It’s our job as coaches to make sure it happens. I’m really excited about that part.”
LaVelle and his coaching staff worked the Bulldogs through eight weeks of practices – roughly 25 sessions – and four different road trips during the fall season that just finished last week. Both LaVelle and returning all-conference performer Michaela Woodward identified two prevailing themes: hitting and depth.
Like last year, LaVelle plans to mix several promising newcomers in with already established players such as Woodward, junior Diana Mendoza and senior Julia Tyree. This fall the Bulldogs integrated potentially impactful transfers in Taylor Huff (catcher) and Kylie Harpst (pitcher), both of whom attended Concordia for the 2014-15 academic year.
In addition, transfer Nicole Dobernecker raised eyebrows with her power display at a recent home run derby fundraiser conducted by the Bulldog baseball program. Dobernecker owns the Iowa Western Community College record for home runs in a single season (20) and is part of a recruiting class that welcomes others such as Leah Kalkwarf, Michaela Keene, Jamie Lefebure and Megan Ruppert.
“We have depth,” LaVelle said. “That’s a nice problem. I’d say the last two years we had nine or 10 players that could consistently be part of our lineup. We had some kids who didn’t have that experience. Now we have some seniors who have been with the program for four years. We have a lot of freshmen that can play as well. That depth is always nice. If someone goes down or gets hurt, I feel like we have a lot of options we can play.”
The strength of the lineup 1 through 9 was evident this fall. LaVelle says his team will likely have two or three good hitters on the bench every game, simply because there are not enough spots.
Woodward, a second team all-conference choice last season, batted .392 with 39 RBIs as a freshman. She also shouldered a significant load in the circle. She pitched every inning at the GPAC tournament for Concordia during its run to the conference title. If the fall is any indication, she’ll have less pressure on her 5-foot-10 frame in 2016. This team looks to score in bunches.
“We hit the ball really well,” Woodward says of the fall season. “We had our ups and downs but overall in our last tournament we were able to hit the ball, make plays, turn double plays and get the bunts down. Every important detail we were able to work out. Hopefully we can build on that for this spring.”
With a full collegiate season under her belt, Woodward feels more comfortable stepping up as a leader. The Norris High School product and Cortland, Neb., native has made a point of being a resource for the group of 14 freshmen that will hold downs spots on either the varsity or junior varsity roster.
“I’m definitely a lot less nervous,” Woodward said. “Last year, especially in the spring when we played our first doubleheader at Kansas Wesleyan, my nerves were really built up. This year I’m more relaxed. I know what’s happening and what’s going on. I’m able to be more of a leader in the circle, which is really important. I’m trying to help out the other freshmen because I know what they’re going through.”
The pitching staff, including Woodward and Harspt, also gets a boost from another transfer in Amanda Wygant. Harpst, a former player at NCAA Division II Pittsburg State, dominated in three outings this fall and is full-go after recently having rotator cuff surgery.
The wealth of new players means it may take time for things to come together, but there’s no doubting the high level of talent in the program.
Says LaVelle, “Expectations are always high with me. The girls know that. They give it their best every time they take the field.”