Five months after the music stopped and the 2020 season was cut short, the Concordia University Softball team just wanted to play ball again. So Head Coach Shawn Semler relented – with little reluctance. Intra-squad scrimmages commenced sooner than Semler had anticipated while the Bulldogs began fall ball earlier in the calendar than ever before.
Hard to blame Semler or members of the team for wanting to get back to a game-type feel again. At the time COVID-19 shut down the season in March, Concordia sat at 12-2 overall and had just polished off a 7-1 run during spring break in Kissimmee, Fla.
“The kids wanted to play,” Semler said. “We hadn’t played in so long so we put together a scrimmage atmosphere way before we normally would. They were pretty anxious to get going and they were ready. We have a pretty mature team so they were ready to get going. It was a lot of different than most falls in that we had more intra-squad games than we’ve had in the past.”
The program took advantage of an early semester start date and warm August weather. Of course not everything went according to plan. At one point during the fall training period, a group of about 10 student-athletes had to be quarantined as a result of contact tracing. In addition, potential fall games with Creighton University and Doane fell through. In his discussions with other area softball coaches, Semler found that very few were completely satisfied with how the fall transpired (due to COVID interruptions).
However, fall practice reaffirmed that the Bulldogs are again well-stocked with talent. Semler believes his team could have competed with Creighton. That belief is backed by the presence of the star quartet of Hhana Haro, Tori Homolka, Camry Moore and Kylee Nixon. All four Bulldogs appeared on their way to monster seasons in 2020.
“It’s exciting because they’re just really good,” Semler said. “It was a shame to get shut down because these kids are so talented. To lose that time in a career is so sad. When we were on the bus ride home from Florida (in mid-March), none of us thought that we weren’t going to play until next year. There’s that cloud over practice about what things will look like moving forward.”
As one would have expected, Concordia had some rust to knock off when fall practice began. The quarantine situations meant that the roster of available players varied at times. Those instances provided opportunities to watch different players, including newcomers, in different situations. Semler and his staff added depth to a pitching group that already included Moore and Zoe Flores.
Not previously mentioned returners who started at least half the team’s 14 games last spring include Jenessa Jarvis, Regan Karel and Allysia Thayer. The nucleus of this Bulldog bunch may be as strong as any ever fielded by Concordia Softball, which has claimed four conference championships during the GPAC era.
“It didn’t take them long to get back to being pretty good,” Semler said of the return to play this fall. “The scrimmages were competitive and there were a lot of great things to see. The pitchers may have been behind a little bit. We walked more hitters than we normally would. Our hitting was pretty good and defensively we saw good things, especially with having several new players out there.”
Semler has begun his third year leading the program. In other words, the beginnings of semesters have become more seamless. Many veterans who will be counted upon in 2021 have been key parts of a program that owns a record of 40-14 since the start of the 2019 season. Concordia is preparing like a squad that sees itself as a GPAC title contender. The most recent conference regular-season championship for the program came in 2008.
It's possible that the ’20 team could have reached similar heights. Back in the middle of April, Moore provided some thoughts on where she believed the team was headed. These sentiments followed the Bulldogs into this fall.
Said Moore, “When our season got canceled, we were still getting into the groove of taking ground balls on dirt and getting fly balls higher than the Fieldhouse ceiling. We still had so much room to improve this season, and I was so excited to see where we’d go. We worked so hard in the weight room, in the Fieldhouse and in the Hitting Center all offseason. I think we all had a great amount of trust and confidence in each other on the field. And if one of us was struggling, there was always someone who had their back and could pick them up.”
Just to quickly recap, the statistics were eye-popping last spring for Haro and Moore, in particular. Haro batted .585 (24-for-41) with five doubles, two home runs and 11 RBIs. Meanwhile, Moore hit .422 (19-for-45) with five doubles, two triples, four home runs and 20 RBIs. As a pitcher, Moore went 7-1 with a 1.27 ERA and just four walks issued in 55 innings. Homolka (.386) and Nixon (.357) also hit well over .300. As a team, Concordia was averaging 8.1 runs scored per game.
The NAIA is scheduled to release 2021 preseason softball polls in January. When the abbreviated 2020 season ended, the Bulldogs were ranked third in the GPAC behind Morningside and Jamestown. Concordia has not appeared inside the NAIA top 25 since landing at No. 25 during the 1998 season.
In Semler’s eyes, the season opener on Feb. 13 can’t get here soon enough. Considering the extended semester break, productive January practice sessions will be vital to success in those February games. Based on what he’s seen this fall and in previous seasons, Semler is confident his mature and veteran group will answer the call and be prepared to get out to a hot start, just like 2020.
“That older group is very comfortable with how we do things,” Semler said. “They have a confidence level that’s really high. They approached the fall as, let’s get going because we have a really, really exciting season coming up. They wanted to know what they needed to get done and help get the new kids ready for when we start playing games in February.”