Rio Grande Sports Information
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - If you think that winning both the River States Conference regular season and tournament championships - and a single-season school record 45 games - was enough for the University of Rio Grande softball team, you couldn't be further from the truth.
Head coach Chris Hammond's club looks to add to that win total and earn a spot in the NAIA World Series later this month when it begins play in the Grand Rapids Bracket of the NAIA Softball National Championship Opening Round hosted by Davenport University on Monday afternoon.
The RedStorm, 45-8 and the No. 2 seed in the four-team pod, will face No. 3 seed Olivet Nazarene (IL) at noon, at the Farmer's Insurance Athletic Complex.
The Tigers bring a 31-12 record into the opening round and earned their spot in the 40-team field by virtue of a runner-up finish in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletics Conference Tournament.
"I think this season has been more challenging, at least as a coach, given how high the expectations were coming in," Hammond said. "When you've had the success that the program has had the past couple of years, it's difficult to stay there, especially knowing you're going to get everybody's best shot everywhere you go. It's a credit to our kids as to how well they've played this season."
Rio Grande, which has won two straight regular season conference championships and three consecutive conference tournament titles, eclipsed the previous school record for wins in a single season (41) which it established last year.
The RedStorm enters Monday's action ranked 17th nationally - the highest ranking in the program's history - and earlier this season set a new school record with 26 consecutive victories.
"With the schedule that we played, I think it was quite an accomplishment to do what they've done," said Hammond. "To win the regular season by five games and then go and back that up by winning the conference tournament is a testament to the hard work they put in. Now it's a new season, it's the 40 best teams in the country and we have to make sure we give whomever we play from this point on our best shot. If (Sunday's) practice was any indication of how we're going to play, I'm pretty confident in our kids."
Rio Grande is led by sophomore pitcher/outfielder Kelsey Conkey (Minford, OH), who was named both the RSC Pitcher of the Year and Player of the Year.
In the circle, Conkey is 21-1 with a 0.87 earned run average and a pair of saves. She led the league in wins, ERA and shutouts (9) and ranks sixth nationally in ERA. The opposition is batting just .177 against her for the season.
Conkey is batting .333 with 12 home runs - five of which came over a two-day span in the RSC Tournament - and 49 runs batted in.
The RedStorm also had three other All-RSC first team honorees - senior pitcher Jenna Jones (Lancaster, OH), senior second baseman Alex Stevens (Oak Hill, OH) and freshman shortstop Michaela Criner (Lancaster, OH).
Jones, an honorable mention All-America pick last season, is 12-4 with a 1.79 ERA, four shutouts and three saves. She's struck out 102 batters in 125-1/3 innings and opponents are hitting just .199 against the right-hander.
Criner leads the team in batting (.482), hits (68), triples (4) and slugging percentage (.667), while Stevens tops the squad with 46 runs scored and is second among team leaders in batting (.403), hits (62) and doubles (10).
Rio also had a quartet of All-RSC second team honorees, including junior catcher/designated player Tayler Arndt (Clyde, OH) and sophomore outfielder Carly Skeese (Newark, OH).
Arndt has the third-highest batting average among the team's regulars (.349) and leads the club with 11 doubles. Skeese is hitting .321 with a team-high 13 home runs and a team- and conference-leading 52 RBI.
Olivet Nazarene is led by sophomore pitcher/shortstop Emily Carstens, who backs up her 19-5 record and 1.77 ERA in the circle with a .430 batting average and four home runs at the plate.
Second-year head coach Hannah Gardner's Tigers also feature freshman outfielder Miranda Southall (.355, 13 2B, 3 3B, 36 RBI) and junior infielder Samantha Alberto (.310, 3 HR, 37 RBI).
Monday's second game, scheduled for a 3 p.m. first pitch, pits top-seeded and eighth-ranked Davenport (43-7) against No. 4 seed Hastings, Neb. (36-22).
The host Panthers - the champions of the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference - feature a one-two pitching punch of sophomore Mallory Teunissen (21-4, 1.52 ERA, 152 IP, 129Ks) and senior Emily Maves (18-3, 1.75 ERA, 139-2/3 IP, 139Ks), while the trio of freshman Alexa Flores (.429, 13 2B, 8 HR, 56 RBI), sophomore Aby Brambila (.384, 14 2B, 40 RBI) and senior Alyssa Eastman (.314, 17 2B, 5 HR, 31 RBI) fuel a potent offensive attack.
Hastings, which earned its bid as the tournament runner-up in the Great Plains Athletic Conference - has a pair of notable offensive threats in freshman first baseman Lexie Linderman (.410, 12 2B, 16 HR, 72 RBI) and junior infielder Corrin Ziepke (.328 13 2B, 12 HR, 51 RBI). The team's top pitcher is sophomore Josie Bumgardner (13-6, 3.36 ERA, 141Ks in 131-1/3 IP).
The only regular season meeting between any of the four teams in the bracket came on March 10 when Davenport rallied for five sixth-inning runs to defeat Rio Grande, 5-2, in a game played at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Ky.
"Without taking anything away from Georgia Gwinnett and Lindsey Wilson, Davenport is the best team we've played all year. I've said that all along," Hammond said. "They've got a World Series-caliber team. The other two teams - we've tried to find out what we can about them - but they're both here and that tells me they're both very good teams. We're going to have to play well."
Monday's winners will square off on Tuesday, at noon, with the winner of that game advancing to the championship first final on Wednesday at noon.
Monday's losers will meet in an elimination game on Tuesday, at 3 p.m., with the winner of that game moving on to another elimination contest against the loser of Tuesday's opening game at 6 p.m.
The survivor of Tuesday's 6 p.m. game earns a spot in Wednesday's championship and would have to defeat the unbeaten team out of the winner's bracket twice to claim the championship. A second championship final, if needed, would be played Wednesday at 3 p.m.
The bracket champion - along with the champion of the nine other opening round brackets - will advance to the NAIA World Series, scheduled for May 28-June 2 in Clermont, Fla.
"I think our kids are treating this like business - like they expected to be here," said Hammond. "I think it showed in our workout that there aren't any jitters. I saw a team that believed in itself. Where that turns out tomorrow remains to be seen. We've been in about every kind of situation a team can be in this season. They're loose, they're having fun and we're going to ride this as long as we can."