SIOUX CITY | When you reach the top of the mountain sometimes it can be hard to find the motivation to try to do it again.
That clearly wasn’t an issue for the ninth-ranked Morningside softball team. A season after the Mustangs reached the NAIA Softball World Series for the first time ever in its current 10-team format, they look poised to do it again.
“This group is very motivated as a whole anyway and we build that though our culture and our program,” Morningside Coach Jessica Jones-Sitzmann said. “They want to carry that on so it makes them work harder. The girls have worked hard through the season to get to this point and now we are just kind of looking forward to postseason play.”
Morningside is the GPAC champion with a 17-3 mark and a 35-8 record overall, and it was three games clear of any other team in the conference. The Mustangs are the top seed and face Doane (23-23, 8-12) at noon Friday to open things up. Fourth-seeded Dordt (19-18, 12-8) faces fifth-seeded Northwestern (23-22, 10-10) in the other opening matchup at Jensen Complex.
A big reason for Morningside's success is impressive balance up and down the lineup at the plate. Rachel Koch (.371), Tracey Edwards (.370), Moriah Bohlmann (.370), Emilee Dorpinghaus (.358), Allie Martinez (.344), McKenzie Anderson (.333) and Abby Conner (.314) are all hitting well above .300 on the season.
“That is one thing that I love about this team is its work ethic,” Jones-Sitzmann said. “Someone different steps up all the time. They have that potential and we have been strong because of our strength in our numbers. It is fun to see throughout our lineup.”
As strong as the offense has been, outscoring opponents by 185 runs on the season, perhaps the engine behind the team's success is in the pitcher's circle. Senior Rachel Henks is 29-6 on the season with a 1.66 ERA over 206.1 innings. She had 218 strikeouts and 45 walks as she had a stranglehold on the GPAC pitcher of the week honor throughout the season.
“She has earned a lot of this via her hard work and dedication and it is something she would love,” Jones-Sitzmann said. “She would be the first one to tell you that it is her teammates that work hard too to make those special things happen.”
Dordt (19-18, 12-8) brings a very young team to the tournament ready to face a Northwestern (23-22, 10-10) squad it split two games with during the regular season.
“We are very young,” Dordt Coach Jeff Zomer said. “We have a freshman and a sophomore pitching for us, a sophomore catching for us, a freshman at short, a freshman at third, freshman in left. We are splattered with youth all over the field and in our lineup.”
Dordt began the season 4-8 before winning eight of its next 10 to right itself.
“This group has continued to surprise us as a coaching staff with their willingness to learn and that is the one area where I think we have excelled,” Zomer said.
Marissa VandenBerg leads the Defenders with a .348 batting average while Hailey Heeringa is next at .340. Tianna Top paces the pitching staff with a 12-7 mark and a 2.57 ERA. She has allowed 145 hits, struck out 81 and walked 12.
The Red Raiders are led by Madison Beaver's .347 average at the plate while Jessica Rayela hits at a .338 clip. Pitcher Kayla Tindall had a 14-10 mark with a 4.08 ERA.
Morningside has secured the league’s first berth to the NAIA Opening Round as a host site while there will be one other spot up for grabs.