Head coach: Shawn Semler (28-12, 2nd year at Concordia; 439-270, 16th year as college head coach)
2019 record: 28-12, 15-7 GPAC (3rd)
Key returners: Hhana Haro (3B); Tori Homolka (IF/OF); Jenessa Jarvis (OF); Camry Moore (P); Kylee Nixon (INF); Savannah Robertson (INF); MacKinsey Schmidt (OF); Allysia Thayer (C).
Key losses: Leah Kalkwarf (2B); Jamie Lefebure (SS); Elanna Osthoff (OF); Brittany Woolridge (P).
Key newcomers: Zoe Flores (P); Valerie Gerlach (C); Caitlyn McGarvie (OF); Sydni Schernikau (1B).
2019 GPAC all-conference: Hhana Haro (first team); Tori Homolka (first team); Camry Moore (second team); Allysia Thayer (second team); Brittany Woolridge (first team).
While many of its rivals within the conference have already begun their 2020 seasons, the Concordia University softball team is eager to prove something members of the team firmly believe: this is a legitimate GPAC title contender. Entering year two as head coach of the Bulldogs, Shawn Semler can’t help but be overcome with excitement at the thoughts of watching first team all-conference sluggers Hhana Haro and Tori Homolka sting the ball and viewing the continued rise to stardom of two-way standout Camry Moore.
Concordia landed at No. 4 in the GPAC preseason coaches’ poll, but that’s not necessarily a slight considering how much the league has advanced. There are plenty of threats around the GPAC beyond the preseason top three of Morningside, Midland and Jamestown. Semler wants his players to see themselves as worthy challengers to anyone in the conference.
“They see what I see as far as what we have in this program and how good we really could be,” Semler said. “The way last season ended left kind of a bad taste in their mouth. That’s a good thing because I think we went into that postseason really believing in ourselves. We’ve had a whole year now and everybody’s a little bit more mature and knows my system and what I’m about. I think they’re at the point where they really want to win too. There’s a renewed interest and the focus has been unbelievable this year in how they’ve prepared.”
In many respects, the Bulldogs were close in 2019. At one point they were close to cracking the NAIA top 25. They were close to challenging for the league title having entered the final two weeks of the season still hot on the heels of eventual regular-season co-champs Midland and Morningside. They were close in the loss to Morningside that ultimately ended their season in the GPAC tournament.
Semler and his team will not be satisfied with simply being close in 2020. Rather, their team motto of “never settle” is setting the tone for the mindset and mentality that Concordia is determined to embrace throughout this spring. Any team that’s lineup features Hharo, Homolka and Moore is something to be reckoned with.
Says Homolka, “I feel like there’s a lot (of expectations for our lineup). We should have a solid nine. That nine may be hard to find right away but once we put it together, it’s going to be pretty scary to pitch against us. We have a lot of strong batters who bring different things to the plate.”
Most notable among departures, first team All-GPAC pitcher Brittany Woolridge has graduated. That leaves a void on the pitching staff, but the combined improvement of many returning veterans should help lessen the blow. Some other returners with plenty of game experience include second baseman Kylee Nixon, infielder Savannah Robertson, center fielder MacKinsey Schmidt and catcher Allysia Thayer. Jenessa Jarvis, Jadyn Lindgren and Dalaney Nance also will factor into the equation.
Nixon, a York High School product, is drawing rave reviews after she hit .431 as a freshman. She could be in line for the type of monster sophomore campaign that Homolka enjoyed. Says Semler of Nixon, “You talk about focus. I mean, that kid has really, really changed a lot about how a young person is perceived. She’s small in stature, but she walks around and she has a lot of presence with herself. I think she’s going to really build on what she did last year.”
If Nixon bats in front of Haro and Homolka, she may wear herself out rounding the base paths. Haro and Homolka combined for 36 extra base hits last season and both slugged better than .600.
“They’re so talented in what they do and had such great seasons, but you wouldn’t know it by how hard they work,” Semler said of Haro and Homolka. “They’re doing the fundamentals the right way and they’re going through everything the right way. There’s the thought that if those two work tirelessly on a tee and on their form, then I better do that too.”
Moore’s pinpoint control in the circle is especially impressive. She walked only 13 batters in 132.2 innings while recording a 2.85 ERA in 2019. She also batted .322 at the plate and seems to have plenty of room for expanding her production in the power department. Another in the line of Crete High School products (along with Schmidt) to become Bulldogs, Moore will draw plenty of local attention throughout her career wearing Bulldog colors.
Teammates understand the importance of Moore, who will likely shoulder even more of a pitching load this spring. Says Homolka, “Watching her just in this preseason, she has grown a lot from last year. She’s learning about herself and what she can do. A lot of that was how much Brittany pushed her last year and helped her become better. Now she’s doing that for Zoe (Flores). She’s giving back what she was given.”
The aforementioned Flores figures to eat up plenty of the innings that are not consumed by Moore in the circle. Flores arrived at Concordia via Port LaVaca, Texas. From a position player perspective, catcher Valerie Gerlach, outfielder Caitlyn McGarvie and infielder Sydni Schernikau are additional newcomers who have stood out going back to fall ball.
Semler hopes the class of newcomers will help increase the overall team speed, something that could make a difference in those nail-biters with other conference championship contenders. Semler believes his team will be better at manufacturing runs on days when the elements may not be conducive to powering the ball over the fence.
That’s not to say the Bulldogs will be a drastically different offensive team. The expectation is that the home runs will rise significantly from the total of 22 that the 2019 squad produced. The potent lineup and the pitching of Moore could carry the ’20 Concordia softball team a long ways.
“Never settle,” Semler said in repeating the team mantra. “It’s one of those things we were talking about in a coaches meeting. I feel like last year we got to a point where maybe we settled. We had a good season but they didn’t really believe in how good they could have been. We talk every day about never settling. There’s no reason why we can’t win this conference and get to the postseason and make the national tournament. We’ve got everything in place to do so. We just can’t settle for less than that.”
Homolka and company are on the same page. A left side of the infield featuring Homolka at short and Haro at third is about as good as it gets. There’s nothing wrong with being confident considering the amount of proven talent on board. Says Homolka, “I see a GPAC championship and a trip to nationals, which would be amazing. Hopefully we can get to that point by finding stuff that clicks and putting together a lineup that works.”
The 2020 season will officially get going on Friday, Feb. 28 with a doubleheader at Bethany College (Kan.). The Bulldogs are also scheduled to be at Kansas Wesleyan University for another doubleheader the next day.