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Softball enters 2016 seeking third-straight trip to nationals

By Jacob Knabel on Feb. 8, 2016 in Softball

At a glance
Head coach: Todd LaVelle (61-39, 3rd year)
2015 record: 29-23, 10-10 GPAC (7th); GPAC tournament champions
Key returners: Diana Mendoza (OF); Autumn Owens (3B); Julia Tyree (1B/P); Michaela Woodward (P)
Key losses: Palmer Bosanko (IF/OF); Regan Doiel (OF); Molly Madsen (1B); Shelby Schacher (C); MaKenna Tracy (OF); Becca Walker (SS/3B)
Key newcomers: Nicole Dobernecker (IF); Kylie Harpst (P); Taylor Huff (C); Leah Kalkwarf (IF); Mikaela Keene (IF); Jamie Lefebure (IF); Megan Ruppert (OF); Amanda Wygant (P)
2015 GPAC all-conference: Julia Tyree (first team); Michaela Woodward (second team); Molly Madsen (honorable mention)

Season Outlook
Following a disappointing seventh-place GPAC regular-season finish in 2015, the Bulldogs played their best softball at an opportune time. Then freshman Michaela Woodward starred with the bat and with her pitching arm in leading Concordia to its first conference tournament title since 2007 and a return trip to the national tournament. Under head coach Todd LaVelle, the Bulldogs have won a combined 61 games while reaching the GPAC final in each of the past two seasons.

LaVelle and company hope to take things to another level in 2016, but they will have to do so while mixing in 19 new players.

“It’s a work in progress as far as getting the team to mesh and bond,” LaVelle said. “There’s no doubt the talent is there. It’s up to us as coaches not only to mesh, but to develop the skillset. That’s what we’ve done. We have four, possibly five freshmen that could play key roles. We also have a couple junior college transfers that could play key roles. They’re going to have to mature throughout the year. We’re going to have to have some patience and understand that each inning they play they’re going to get better.”

Despite the losses of many of last year’s starting position players, LaVelle is confident his squad can compete with anyone in the country. The third-year skipper is hardly starting from scratch. He welcomes back first team all-conference selection Julia Tyree, who will shift to first base in her fourth season as a starter. She batted .397 with seven homers and a .652 slugging percentage as a junior and provides a big bat in the middle of the order. She teams with Woodward (.392/.439/.562) for the makings of another powerful one-two punch.

Junior Diana Mendoza, a career .301 hitter in 97 games as a Bulldog, has the potential to blossom into a star. She will get the majority of time in left field while also serving as a backup catcher. The other key returner is third baseman Autumn Owens, who made 38 starts as a freshman and delivered four long balls. This core group will combine with the impressive class of fresh faces that figures to elevate the overall talent level on the diamond.

“I think we’ve gotten better every year I’ve been here, which is an absolute blessing,” Tyree said. “I think this year has more potential than any year I’ve ever been part of. We definitely have more depth this year than we’ve ever had.”

The Bulldogs are eagerly anticipating the debut of transfers Kylie Harpst (Pittsburg State) and Taylor Huff (Creighton/Colorado-Colorado Springs), who both played for LaVelle at Lincoln North Star High School. Harpst will take some weight off the shoulders of Woodward in the circle while also bringing an impact bat. Harpst will work with Huff, who is expected to take on most of the duties behind the plate.

Huff is part of a transformation that has taken place up the middle. Concordia will also have new starters at second base, shortstop and in centerfield. LaVelle and his staff like the athleticism of Crete High School product Jamie Lefebure at shortstop. Her double-play partner is another rookie in Leah Kalkwarf (Omaha). In center, McCook Community College transfer Megan Ruppert takes over. She batted .357 in her two seasons with the Indians. Senior Nicole Dobernecker, freshman Maddie Fousek and senior Brianne Liebelt are all candidates to see time in right field.

“Hopefully it’s better,” LaVelle said of this year’s roster. “You hate to say it because each year you feel like you have a good nucleus of players. On paper I really feel like this could be the best out of the three (years at Concordia). There are so many different components that go into making a great team. They have to bond. They have to gel as a team. They have to overcome the obstacles that are going to face them. We’ll have some. Every team does. How they handle those obstacles is yet to be seen. I sure do like what I see so far.”

Woodward already proved herself to be a workhorse in throwing every inning for Concordia during last year’s GPAC tournament run, but she’ll be fresher down the stretch this time around thanks to the additions of Harpst and others such as junior Amanda Wygant, who found her way to Seward via Central Arizona College. Harpst has made her way back after redshirting last season following shoulder surgery. She and Huff already understand the ins and outs of the program having sat in the dugout for the 2015 journey to the national tournament.

Concordia’s preseason placement of fifth in the GPAC poll is a reflection of last year’s up-and-down regular season. Under LaVelle, the Bulldogs have done their best work in the conference tournament, winning 10 of 13 GPAC postseason games over the past two seasons. The trick this year is to figure things out sooner while several prime ingredients introduce themselves to college softball.

“Right now if we played tomorrow there’s a good chance that three freshmen would start at pretty key positions,” LaVelle said. “We could have a freshman at shortstop, one at second base and possibly one in the outfield. Those are key components. They played a high level of high school ball. At the same token, it’s a big jump. They will have to continue to develop and know how to handle everything.”

The Bulldogs will not be able to simply ease into the start of the regular season. They will meet up with No. 6 Oklahoma City University in the season opener in Dallas, Texas, on Friday (Feb. 12). Concordia also matched up with the Stars in the opening round of last year’s national tournament. The conference season begins March 30 with a doubleheader at Doane, the defending GPAC regular-season champ and 2016 preseason conference favorite.

Though winter weather like last week’s snowstorm has forced the Bulldogs to practice indoors, LaVelle believes his team is ready for primetime.

“I’m going to say we’re right up there,” LaVelle said. “I feel like we can beat anybody in the nation. Doane got the nod (in the preseason). They got 11 first-place votes. I think we can play with anybody. What we have to do a better job of this year is bringing our ‘A’ game every time we take the field. I didn’t think we did that last year. I think we might have taken some innings off. If we compete hard we can be there at the end.”