The 2016 Concordia softball team showed its vast potential by blitzing eventual conference champion Morningside with 12 runs on eight hits in the opening inning of a game played on April 9. During the drawn-out frame that stunned the host Mustangs, Michaela Woodward doubled in two runs, Autumn Owens drilled a grand slam and Kylie Harpst doubled in two more, keeping the merry-go-round spinning.
The point: Concordia softball has advanced to a level under head coach Todd LaVelle that it can play with anyone across the NAIA landscape. After proving itself with national tournament appearances in 2014 and 2015, the Bulldogs beefed up the schedule this past spring. They played seven eventual national tournament teams, winning four times against those clubs.
One of the top offensive teams in the nation paved the way for the sixth 30-win season in the history of Concordia softball. The only thing missing from the 2016 campaign was the consistency or late-season momentum needed for another run to the national stage.
“We wanted to make the national tournament,” LaVelle said. “That and winning the conference are goals every year. Over the past few years we’ve had a chance to make some of those things happen. Every year the bar gets raised a little bit higher. Going into the season I felt we had the talent to do that. On paper I felt we had the most talent we’ve had in my three years here. We fell a little bit short of our goals, but there were a lot of things that we did well. We’re heading in the right direction.”
The 2017 team will build around four players who batted better than .350 this past season: Harpst (.392), Owens (.392), Woodward (.380) and Taylor Huff (.355). In her second year as the starting third baseman, Owens blossomed into one of the top players in the GPAC. She equaled a school single-season record with nine home runs. As a team, Concordia ranked 12th nationally in runs per game (6.4) and 16th in batting average (.336).
LaVelle’s group of sluggers in the middle of the lineup keyed the 13-3 run-rule win over Morningside and a 10-9 slugfest victory over the University of Great Falls, another national qualifier. The win over Great Falls was part of 10-game win streak and 12-2 start out of the gate for a Bulldog squad that didn’t shy away from top-notch competition.
Concordia averaged more than nine runs per game during its desert-hot stay in Tucson, Ariz., for spring break. LaVelle hopes that kind of production can flow more consistently over the balance of 2017.
“Our hitting will continue to be a strength. We’re looking for big things. There’s no doubt,” LaVelle said. “Even though this season was a little bit of a disappointment, we’re excited about what we have coming back. It’s going to be crazy. We have a lot of girls with the potential of hitting over .350 next year. Woodward for two years has been one of our top hitters. We have Autumn back. We have Taylor and Kylie. I think Leah (Kalkwarf) can get up there and Megan (Ruppert) was right there. Plus we’re bringing in freshmen that are hitting very well with high-level club teams.”
After advancing to the national tournament in 2015, Concordia experienced significant roster turnover in 2016. That is unlikely to be the case next spring when considering that nine of the 10 players who started the final game this season are underclassmen. The only exception was senior Julia Tyree, a second team all-conference selection. Throughout the GPAC tournament, LaVelle started three freshmen in the infield.
The invaluable experience gained by the likes of rookies Maddie Fousek, Kalwarf, Mikaela Keene and Jamie Lefebure only bodes well for the future.
“I thought (Jamie and Leah) had outstanding years. They had some freshman mistakes but they did really, really well. I think with a year under their belt they’re only going to get better. Leah’s bat really came to life at the tournament. She’s just a competitor. So is Jamie. They have a chance to be the anchors of our infield for years to come.”
A more veteran team could help turn around some of the close losses suffered by the 2016 group. Of the team’s 18 defeats in 2016, 13 were decided by either one or two runs. That included both losses in the conference tournament.
In other words, the indicators are pointing up after a season that ended too soon in the minds of LaVelle and his Bulldogs.
“When you sit back and reflect you feel like we have to do some things different,” LaVelle said. “I think we need to prepare better mentally in the offseason. We lost a lot of one-run games where we gave up leads in the last inning. At the same time, you do have to look at the successes we had. We got a lot of girls experience that hadn’t played at this level. The bar is set really high.”