Softball begins season with high hopes


Natalie Tyler

Sophomores Katie Kolb, Megan Kappauf, Alison Nowak, first-year Rina Niehoff and sophomore McKenna Gutt prepare for a game last year on April 12. After going into last year’s NCAA regional tournament with a 45-7 record and losing in the first round, the Warrior softball team hopes to begin this year strong.

Sydney Mohr, Features Editor

With the start of the Winona State University softball team’s season peeking its head around the corner, the athletes are getting geared up and ready to tackle this season head on.

The end of last season was a difficult battle for the Warriors, as they ended in the first round of the NCAA regional tournament with back-to-back losses that eliminated them from the tournament after a season where they finished 45-7.

After last spring, the Warriors had five of their starting players graduate, leaving space for younger players to fill in the gaps. Head coach Greg Jones commented on how this may affect the team throughout this season.

“In some ways, this is a veteran team and other ways I feel we are very young,” Jones said. “We graduated five starters from last year’s team. Those kids were talented, and they were great leaders. We have a lot of impact players back and a lot of kids back who played quality innings, but everyone will need to step up as they grow in the program.”

The team’s roster this year consists heavily of returning players, with the bulk of the team coming from the seven sophomores and eight juniors, backed up by two seniors and two first-year players. This gives the advantage that the team is semi-experienced when it comes to the field, but as Jones said, they have to learn and grow just as every other team.

“We should have some young kids fighting for some playing time this year. At this point, none of our roles are really defined, as we will need some game action to really figure out how this team will look over the course of the season,” Jones said.

Winona State remained the No. 1-ranked team in the NCAA Division II Central Region Softball Rankings at the end of the season, just before heading to the NCAA tournament. The Warriors also ranked No. 5 in the NFCA Coaches’ Poll. With a conference record of 20-2, they were seen as the unstoppable force through the NCAA tournament. Though they fell short, their record showed they did not go down without a fight. This season is shaping up to be a similar lineup, according to Jones.

“This league is so tough, there is not just one team,” Jones said. “Anyone can beat anyone any day, it is such a grind, and everyone is evenly matched. I think Augie has the most talent in the league, there’s no small game in the league.”

He admitted it’s always how you play, not just how the team is predicted and seen.

“I like our chances on paper, on paper we look good,” Jones said. “We have quality kids who have won at this level in the past. We return the ‘Pitcher of the Year’ and the ‘Player of the Year.’ However, our championship and accolades were all earned last year. We have to find a way to come back and be successful this year. We have as much talent as anyone in the league, but we will have to execute and be mentally tough to win it again this season.”

It was a tough start to get into practices, according to a few of the women on the team. Several student-athletes talked about how difficult it can be to get back into practicing after having a month off. The team also has to deal with injuries. Senior shortstop and one of NFCA’s “top 50 players to watch for,” Lani Van Zyl, is out for two to four weeks due to a minor torn meniscus that required surgery, and there is a possibility of the first baseman being out for a while. According to junior pitcher Alyssa Van Valey, another incident took place during winter practices.

“Every year, the first practices of the season are the pitchers and the catchers. Well, during one of these practices a ball went in a wrong direction and accidentally hit [Coach Jones] in the face,” Valey said. “So that in itself was hard because we didn’t have a coach for a few practices and we were unsure what to do, but now everything seems to be back on track.”

Van Valey noted the team is not where they thought they would be at this time, but everyone is stepping up to the challenge of moving positions and working around injured players.

Despite the hardships these women faced through the start of practices and getting into the season, it is hard to break a bond that is formed through difficult and high-pressure situations.

“I like to say that we try to keep the same feel with the team every year,” Van Valey said. “But this year, we just gel a lot more. There’s less drama and we get along well on and off the field, which will definitely improve our performance.”

After last season’s record and an overall team batting average of .343, led by Van Zyl with an average of .473, Winona State has the statistics to back up that there are talented players on the team who will continue to represent the university in a positive light.

According to Van Valey, she sees this team as the “underdogs” of the conference this season.

“I want to say that it is definitely a year of potential for us,” Van Valey said. “We have a few preseason titles, but with the injuries we’ve had it has been difficult.”

Even with the injuries and other issues the Warriors have had, their main priority for the season is to bring up their record and to work together as much as possible on a unified goal.

“I think we are also in the mindset of winning each moment that’s in front of us. It doesn’t matter who it is we are playing against our goal is to win each pitch and ultimately that will lead to our success in winning games. We have a lot of targets on our backs this year based off last year so I think just staying true to our team and winning each moment for the person next to us will ultimately lead to our success this season.” Van Valey said.

The Warriors start off their season with the Lewis Dome Invitational in Rosemont, Illinois Feb. 22- 24. The games will be played against Grand Valley State University, Wayne State University (Michigan), University of Findlay, University of Wisconsin-Parkside and Lewis University.

Archived Photo
The Winona State softball team warm up before a game against St. Cloud State University last season. The Warriors played a double header against the Huskies, losing their first game 1-3 and coming back with a 3-2 win. Their main priority this season is to bring up their record and work together.
Natalie Tyler
Junior Jordyn Kleman throws the ball to a teammate during a game against St. Cloud State University last year on Friday, April 12. The Warriors played a double header that weekend, walking away with one win and one loss. Though there have already been multiple injuries during practice this season, the Warriors are hopeful of what this season will bring.