Varsity Kansas

State softball: Kapaun comes together at right time

When Kapaun Mount Carmel coach Missy Congdon readied her softball team for regional play last week, she posted a motivational saying — No excuses, go play hard, go win.

“I wanted them to keep everything else out, to be focused,” Congdon said.

After a challenging regular season, Kapaun (13-9) did just that and will play St. Thomas Aquinas (21-1) in the first round of the Class 5A tournament at 5 p.m. Friday at Two Rivers Youth Complex.

“I’m just really proud of them,” said Congdon, who said it’s been more than a decade since Kapaun last went to the 5A tourney. “They stepped up and did what they needed to do to get their wins. They were so happy. They deserve that. They deserve the thrill of that.”

Junior shortstop Molly McAuliffe noted that in the past two years, Kapaun’s season ended in the regional title game.

“In the past, we’ve always been so close,” McAuliffe said. “The past two years I’ve been there and we’ve lost in the regional championship. We finally came and won it and now we have a chance at winning state.”

But Kapaun’s season could have been derailed by drama.

Through the course of the spring, the Crusaders battled hurt feelings, complaints that the coaches were too hard on the players, concerns of too much pressure.

“It’s been very challenging,” Congdon said. “We had many team discussions just about what we wanted out of the Kapaun softball program. That’s our goal every year, to get to state and win state. We need to get them to buy into it. All season, it’s been up and down. I attribute a lot of that to the youth…. I laid it on the line. ‘This is about the team, not you. You have to bring what you can do on your end to contribute to the team for the good of the team.’ ”

The Crusaders have conducted team meetings as a way for the players to share their feelings. That has done some good, but it has been a rocky road.

“Every team will face their ups and downs,” McAuliffe said. “We have faced quite a bit. It happens with any girls team. To get through it, coach told us we needed to get over it to accomplish what we wanted.

“It was tough to get through. We had some moments, either we do it or we’ll fail.”

And that’s why Congdon wrote her statement of ‘no excuses, go play hard, go win.’ Put the past behind you, move on. Focus on the playoffs.

Or Kapaun likely would miss out on another chance at the 5A tournament.

“I think we worked through it by forgetting about it and moving on,” freshman pitcher Alex Jennings said. “I think we’re going to be closer than ever. We want to do good in state. We all want it really bad.”

Talent was as important as cohesiveness for Kapaun. Congdon knew early that while the Crusaders are extremely young — their lineup includes three juniors, two sophomores and four freshmen, including a freshman at pitcher, catcher and leadoff — this is the most talented team Congdon has had in her five seasons.

The hitting especially has improved and multiple players are capable of hitting homers. Sophomore center fielder Lily Channel has four homers and seven doubles, and also has a team-high .443 batting average. Liz Dwyer, Jennings, Adrienne Esposito, Wendy Funes and McAuliffe are all hitting .365 or better.

“Last year I thought we lacked hitting throughout our (lineup),” Congdon said. “That might have been the cause of us not being able to get to state. This year our hitting is much better. Batting averages are up for all the girls. We had (four) players hit home runs. That consistency wasn’t always there, and I think some of their confidence and feeling successful has come from it.”

Jennings, Kapaun’s freshman ace, has a 2.26 ERA with five shutouts and 103 strikeouts and is a consistent presence on the mound. Jennings said she has eight pitches, and she’s quick to credit a strong defense behind her, especially the middle infield.

“I just think she’s one of these girls who will be very, very successful,” Congdon said. “I think she has a chance to be a dominating pitcher in the future…. She’s an all-around winner. She’s very confident, very determined. She’s committed.”

Jennings didn’t falter, even when Congdon took over the pitch calling when Kapaun’s catcher quit in late April. Freshman Mary Swanson moved up and is still adapting.

But that’s what this season has been about, adapting to challenges.

“I like the fact that we have come through this adversity and they stuck together to get what they really wanted, which is making it to state,” Congdon said. “It shows character and guts to stick with it.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle