When Trine softball won a Division III NCAA regional championship with a victory over Wartburg on Saturday, Thunder coach Don Danklefsen said winning those titles has become the standard for his program.
It’s hard to argue that point as the Thunder have won five regionals in the last eight years and two in a row. This weekend, they will play Concordia University Wisconsin in the best-of-three super regional round, trying to advance to the NCAA National Championships for the fourth time since 2017. Though they are still looking for their first national championship, Trine has all the hallmarks of an emerging national power after a third-place national finish in 2019 and a runner-up showing last year.
“You see the talent we bring in every year and the talent that continues to come back every year and the leadership that has been passed down through the years that this is the standard we want for this program,” Trine shortstop Amanda Prather said. “Every practice, everything that we’re doing as a team in the fall, off the field, on the field, is for these kind of moments and we’re building that competitive atmosphere here.”
The Thunder (38-4), winner of 15 games in a row and ranked No. 5 in the country at the end of the regular season, believe it has a team capable of challenging for the program’s first national championship. First, however, it needs to get past Concordia (40-3), which has won 31 in a row and won its three regional games by a combined score of 18-1.
Pitching could dominate the super regional series, which starts at 2 p.m. today at Trine’s SportONE/Parkview Softball Field.
Trine entered regional play with a 1.05 team ERA, second-best in Division III, and proceeded to lower that to 1.00 by giving up just one run in three games. The Thunder staff is led by Anna Koeppl (14-0), the nation’s leader in ERA at 0.35, who has pitched 52 2/3 consecutive innings without giving up an earned run in a streak that stretches back to March. Freshman Debbie Hill and Alexis Michon, who played against Trine in the National Championships last year with Eastern Connecticut State, make Trine’s rotation three deep with shutdown hurlers.
But this weekend, Trine will meet its pitching match as Concordia entered regionals fourth nationally in ERA at 1.13. Workhorse ace Gina Followell (27-0) won all three regional games for the Falcons and also ranks in the top five nationally in ERA with an 0.71 mark.
Danklefsen says Followell and the rest of the Falcons’ staff is mostly reliant on power rather than finesse. He has his hitters ready to maximize every run-scoring opportunity.
“I bet no one gets more than three runs in a game,” the Trine coach said. “We’re able to go with the small-ball game, hit the ball long, we can score numerous ways. I think we can do some things against them they haven’t seen. We’ve played a really good schedule for a reason. … I like our matchup.”
Many of the intangibles of the series are on Trine’s side. The Thunder have a roster full of players who were at this stage last season, while Concordia is here for the first time in program history.
“Experience is definitely something that would help us because we’ve been here before,” Koeppl said. “We know the ins and outs of being here and that level you have to play at. But at the same time we’ve talked about not taking it for granted. While some of us have been on this stage before, we can never guarantee being here again so you have to put everything into it.”