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ORANGE CITY, Iowa | Saturday’s graduation ceremony at Rowenhorst Student Center began the fun-filled journey for seniors from Northwestern College’s baseball and softball teams.

Caps and gowns were quickly exchanged for regular attire for the squads as they traveled to the NAIA Opening Round. Baseball Coach Brian Wede’s fifth-seeded Red Raiders (30-18) drove to Upland, Indiana, the site of Monday’s 11 a.m. game against fourth-seeded Taylor (43-14), the tournament host.

Meanwhile, Coach Chris Nachtigall’s third-seeded 35-11 softball team flew to Medford, Oregon for a 1 p.m. game against second-seeded 38-7 Saint Francis (Ill.). Six seniors start for the Northwestern squad that won a best two-of-three Great Plains Athletic Conference Softball Series over Midland at Fremont, while five seniors start for the baseball team that won both the GPAC’s regular-season and tournament championships.

Seniors from both programs had never been in this position. The baseball team had gone from worst to first in the GPAC race. The softball team ended a streak of three consecutive losing seasons.

“When these guys came into the program, 2013 was the last time we had been (to the Opening Round),” said Wede. “The first two years (2015, 2016) we were below .500 and last season, we lost a lot of close games. They didn’t want to have the legacy of never getting to play in a national tournament or never having the chance to win a conference championship.”

Mission accomplished. Following a 7-12 start to the season, Northwestern finished winning 23 of its last 29 games.

Leadoff batter Reed Smith (.322, 5 HR, 27 RBIs), a senior centerfielder, is followed in the lineup by four classmates – shortstop Christian Stekl (.333, 3 HR, 20 RBIs), first baseman Michael Callahan (.280, 8, 35), second baseman Matt Martin (.340, 6 HR, 37 RBIs) and designated hitter Dustin Gaither (.314, 2, 32).

One of the squad’s biggest keys in the turnaround has been the performance of senior reliever Tanner Ortlund (1-2, 9 saves).

“It’s a role that suits him better than starting,” said Wede. “It’s allowed us to win close games late. We’ve seen lots of close games. It gives the guys confidence late in the game that if it’s close, we can win. We didn’t have that last year. One of our veteran arms is in the bullpen.”

Martin has hit safely in six of his last seven games. Stekl, Gaither and Callahan have hits in five of their last six games while leading hitter Zach Rosson (.351, 3 HR, 22 RBIs), a sophomore catcher has hit in nine of his last 10.

Former OA-BCIG High School athletes Jensen Boger and Cheyenne Wilcke, a pair of seniors, are two of the top three softball hitters.

Boger, a second baseman, leads the way, batting .345. Wilcke, a third baseman, is batting .298 with team-bests in home runs (12) and RBIs (30).

Shortstop Jessica Sandbulte (.263, 4 HR, 18 RBIs) is also part of the senior class along with first baseman Katie Elliott (.252, 4, 21), pitcher Kayla Tindall (.240, 8, 19) and centerfielder Amanda Everhart (.201, 3, 18).

“Our senior group has worked hard and have experienced a lot of up and downs,” said Nachtigall. “It’s great to see them culminate their careers with a national appearance. They’re a deserving group. For them to get a conference championship and make nationals is a great testament to their resilience and their ability to work hard.”

Tindall also has a 17-6 record with a 1.85 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 155 innings heading into the Opening Round. The former Akron-Westfield High School athlete, second all-time in school history with 426 strikeouts, fired two of her team-high five shutouts in the GPAC Tournament Series at Midland.

Freshman Emma Schnell, the squad’s lone first-team all-conference pick, was 17-4 with a 1.82 ERA and four shutouts. Her classmate, catcher Emily Bosch (.339, 5 HR, 25 RBIs), handled both pitchers well and also delivered the two-run double in the ninth inning in Game 3 of the GPAC Tournament Series, the 2-0 win over Midland.

Bosch, Boger, Tindall and junior outfielder Madison Beaver (.285, 3 HR, 14 RBIs) each won second-team honors. Nachtigall said the snubs on the all-conference team aren’t factors that will motivate them at the Opening Round.

“For them, they want to compete no matter what,” he said. “Their motivation is to compete hard whoever they’re against. They feel they can compete against anybody.”

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