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Season preview: 2019 Concordia softball

By Jacob Knabel on Jan. 22, 2019 in Softball

Head coach: Shawn Semler (1st year at Concordia; 411-258, 15th year as college head coach)
2018 record: 21-21, 10-10 GPAC (7th)
Key returners: Grace Bernhardt (P); Hhana Haro (3B); Tori Homolka (IF/OF); Leah Kalkwarf (2B); Jamie Lefebure (SS); Elanna Osthoff (OF); MacKinsey Schmidt (OF); Allysia Thayer (C); Brittany Woolridge (P).
Key losses: Kenna Heath (IF/OF).
Key newcomers: Jadyn Lindgren (OF); Camry Moore (P); Kylee Nixon (MI/C); Savannah Robertson (IF); Emily Sherstone (OF).
2018 GPAC all-conference: Hhana Haro (player of the year; first team); MacKinsey Schmidt (first team); Allysia Thayer (honorable mention).

Many positive indicators emerged throughout the fall exhibition season for a Concordia University softball program going through a transition. The change is not so much about personnel, but more about the leader now in charge of getting the most out of the 2019 team. Bellevue, Neb., native Shawn Semler enters the fray after most recently guiding the softball program at Waverly High School.

What Semler has found are that there are many pieces in place for potential immediate success. On the surface, that may not have been evident to those who looked only at the 2018 team’s 21-21 overall record and seventh place finish in the GPAC.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us, but I think with what we have we’re going to surprise some people,” Semler said. “I think some teams realized that we’re going to be a little bit better (based on being picked fifth in the GPAC preseason poll). I talked to a couple of the other coaches who thought we could be playing for something special. I agree with that. We’re just going to have to find out if we can learn how to win games against those teams that are traditional powers in our conference.”

A look around at the individual pieces reveals a considerable wealth of talent. Sophomores in third baseman Hhana Haro and center fielder MacKinsey Schmidt picked up first team all-conference accolades in 2018. Haro accomplished the rare feat of earning GPAC Player of the Year honors as a rookie. There’s also the veteran presence of seniors Leah Kalkwarf and Jamie Lefebure, a duo that should make the middle of the infield rock solid. Of course the collegiate debut of former Crete High School star Camry Moore is also highly anticipated.

Semler has recognized that talent and the need to bring everyone closer together. Some things just did not click in 2018 the way that they did in 2017 when the Bulldogs turned in a 34-14 overall record. Relationship building has been an offseason focus.

Says Lefebure, the team’s shortstop, “It’s been a really easy transition (with Coach Semler). Right out front he set a standard of hard work and dedication. From there we have a great group of girls and we all work together. We’ve become a lot stronger.”

Haro, who hails from Garden Grove, Calif., may have put together the best freshman season in the history of the program. She led all GPAC players with a .494 batting average that ranked eighth nationally. She also broke school single season records for both hits (76) and doubles (20) while slugging .747. She never stopped hitting all spring long while showing off a rocket arm from the hot corner. As much as Semler has been impressed with Haro’s physical talent, he appreciates her keen understanding of the game.

The return of Hharo, Kalkwarf and Lefebure leaves the infield pretty well stocked before even considering the class of newcomers. Several others return with starting experience, including senior outfielder Elanna Osthoff, who hit .356 in her first season at Concordia. The group also features the likes of the versatile Tori Homolka and catcher Allysia Thayer, two more members of the impact 2018 freshman class. Among position players, Maddie Fousek, Jenessa Jarvis, Dalaney Nance and Tricia Tripp each saw substantial action last spring.

“I’ve never had this kind of depth before,” Semler said. “There are kids who may not go to Tucson with us but come April might be huge impact players for us. That’s going to be one of those things we have to figure out. Along with depth, our leadership has been really, really good. We have some strong seniors who have taken hold of this and want to run with this. As a coach, that’s exciting to see. Our pitching should be strong. We have some philosophies and some ideas on how we want to use our pitching staff this year.”

Moore follows Hharo as the new freshman sensation. She becomes the third Crete High School alum on the roster after leading the Cardinals to a 2017 state title. The numbers her senior season were eye popping. In the circle, she went 28-8 with a 1.26 ERA and 253 strikeouts over 200 innings. At the plate, she batted .487 with eight home runs, 19 doubles and did not strike out a single time.

Says Lefebure, “I think she’ll be a tremendous help. She’s a very strong willed and hard working girl and she will do nothing but good things for our program.”

Moore will team up with the likes of senior Brittany Woolridge and sophomore Grace Bernhardt. Woolridge and Bernhardt combined to cover 197 of the team’s 280.2 innings pitched in 2018. Bernhardt came on strong towards the end of the season with the highlight of her campaign being a four-hit shutout of Briar Cliff. Woolridge is bit more of a swing-and-miss type of pitcher.

Moore is far from the lone impact newcomer. Another standout local talent in Kylee Nixon (York High School) looks ready for immediate playing time. Others who will have an opportunity to factor into the equation include three transfers in Jadyn Lindgren (Hickman, Neb.), Savannah Robertson (Columbus, Neb.) and Emily Sherstone (British Columbia, Canada). It all means that Semler will have a challenge in making out a lineup.

“One of the strengths with our lineup is we can put nine kids out who can hit,” Semler said. “As I’m scouting other teams and looking at other teams, most of them have a drop off at 7-8-9. I think people are going to be surprised at our 7-8-9 and how talented they are. It’s one of those things where if it’s between two people, I’m probably going to be comfortable with either one of them. It’ll be interesting to see who pushes themselves in front of the others over the next month-and-a-half.”

Semler certainly knows a good softball team when he sees one. In 14 years of head coaching experience at the collegiate level, Semler has totaled 411 wins and eight conference championships. He remains the winningest coach in the history of the softball program at NCAA Division II Southwest Minnesota State University.

No matter who ultimately earns the playing time and the accolades, this group seems focused on improving its team chemistry. The theme for 2019 reflects that aim.

Says Lefebure, “One of our slogans is the same rope. We’re trying to stick together. We’re all one unit wanting to make the best of this year.”

The Bulldogs will open up the 2019 season on Feb. 15 with a doubleheader at MidAmerica Nazarene University (Kan.). Concordia is scheduled to make its first home appearance on Feb. 27.