There were flashes of brilliance and moments that hinted at brighter days to come for the Concordia University Softball program. Head Coach Brock Culler is only beginning to put his stamp on a program that has been a consistent winner going back to the days of the Nebraska Iowa Athletic Conference. The Bulldogs experienced some turbulence in 2023, but that adversity will make things that much sweeter as they look ahead to a promising 2024.
The regular season record wound up at 15-30 this spring. Concordia never recovered from a rough start to conference play and fell short of qualifying for the GPAC tournament. Culler isn’t deterred by those results as he envisions what’s possible in the years to come.
“It’s very encouraging when you have young players performing and contributing like they have been,” Culler said. “And I’m really excited about the recruiting class we have coming in. We’re going to have a great mix, and we’re going to have good depth. We have very talented kids coming back and very talented kids coming in. During our (postseason) player meetings, you could feel a lot of positive energy even though we had a sub-average season. It wasn’t anything we wanted, but there are a lot of good conversations happening. There’s a good feel for how this is going to look going forward.”
A senior class led by two-time First Team All-GPAC outfielder Caitlyn McGarvie helped ease the transition for Culler, who was formerly the head softball coach at Grand Island Central Catholic. A major positive this past season was the rise of a sophomore group that became the backbone of the team. Three second-year players were recognized as Honorable Mention All-GPAC recipients: Hanna Bowers, Aubrey Bruning and Kylie Shottenkirk. Each of those Bulldogs hit .360 or better in a close race for the team batting title.
The team’s best stretch of play all season may have come at the Friends Invitational in Wichita, Kan., where Concordia won its final three games of the trip – all by the run rule – while piling up 37 runs scored. The immensely talented Shottenkirk emerged from the Friends Invite with GPAC Player of the Week honors. Initially the starting shortstop, Shottenkirk flipped middle infield spots with Bowers late in the season. The duo became a strength of the lineup. No one was more consistent than the Surprise, Ariz., native Bowers, who batted .361 with a .416 on-base percentage and 12 doubles. Meanwhile, Shottenkirk led the team with a .544 slugging percentage. In addition, the slap-hitting Bruning was an on-base machine over the final month of the season.
It could be argued that the team’s breakthrough performer of the year was sophomore pitcher Megan Eurich. The Gretna, Neb., native saw limited action as a freshman before becoming the team’s ace pitcher in 2023. She posted a 3.76 ERA and a 9-12 record with 108 strikeouts in 136 innings (24 appearances). The strikeout total represented the 17th best in a single season in program history. Eurich headed a pitching staff that also featured Jerzi Rowe, Brooke Townsend and Jessie Bestenlehner.
Throughout GPAC play, Concordia struggled to come through with the clutch hits it needed to win some of the close games. The Bulldogs showed they were capable of competing with some of the league’s top teams. They earned a 2-1 win over Morningside to open GPAC play and dropped a 2-1 decision at Dordt in the final doubleheader of the season. Culler now has a better understanding of what his team will need to look like to get over the hump against the likes of Northwestern and Midland.
“It’s a really good softball conference and has been for a while,” Culler said. “There are good coaches, players and really good teams. Everyone is so nice. It didn’t take long to establish relationships with people I hadn’t met before. They’re really helpful and there’s a lot of communication. The competitive level of the GPAC is outstanding. You have to bring it every week. I love that part of it. I really do. In order for us to be successful going forward, we need to get some depth in our lineup. The teams at the top have that. They are solid defensively and their lineup is tough one through nine. That’s where we need to get to. I feel like that’s the direction we’re going. If we can do that, we’ll be in the conversation next year.”
From a milestone perspective, both McGarvie and catcher Taylor Glause moved past 100 career collegiate hits during the 2023 season. Julia Van Wey will enter the 2024 season on the cusp of also reaching that plateau. Another member of that sophomore class, Zoie Isom drove in a team high 26 runs (one of four Bulldogs with 20+ RBIs for the season).
Newcomers that saw the most action in 2023 included Bestenlehner and fellow freshmen Montgomery Berner and Jayden Fernau. A transfer from Des Moines Area Community College, Delanie Voshell started 42 games as the team’s right fielder. They will all be in the mix for more playing time next spring.
Culler went on to praise the attitude of the senior class. Unfortunately, Rowe’s final season was affected by the hip issues she dealt with in 2023. McGarvie, Rowe and Alexis Tachovsky were each part of the 2021 team that advanced to the national tournament. That is the destination the Bulldogs will seek moving forward.
Culler would love to see history repeat itself. After the Concordia Softball program missed the GPAC tournament in 2013, the Bulldogs came back the very next year and reached the national tournament. It’s too early to make any predictions, but Culler and company believe 2024 will be a very different year from a results perspective. Culler can’t wait to get going in the fall with a squad that will get an infusion of talent from a recruiting class that includes Yutan High School shortstop Laycee Josoff.
Said Culler, “We’re really excited about our offseason. We have a summer workout program we’re going to roll out that we’re excited about. The incoming recruits are very talented. It’s going to add a lot of depth to our lineup and strengthen the defensive part of our game. We’re going to hit the recruiting trail this summer. We’re working on the ’24 class and there are some big names on our board we’re going to get after. We feel we will be a draw for those big names. Those conversations have already started. Everything looks really good going forward for this softball program. Our players are feeling good about it and there’s a lot of positive energy.”