After winning the 2019 NCAA Division II Softball Championship, the Vikings were ready to go the distance again in 2020. COVID-19 had other plans.
The Vikings were 16-3 with seven-straight wins when the pandemic shut down collegiate play on March 13, 2020. The team unofficially finished fourth according to the National Fastpitch Coaches Associations (NFCA) poll.
As she enters her 15th season as head coach of the Augustana softball team, Gretta Melstad said her team’s mindset remains the same: to go as far in the NCAA postseason as it can.
“Winning the DII [NCAA Tournament] in 2019 does add pressure, but that pressure is a privilege,” Melstad said. “In reality, we just want to play ball again. When something that you love gets taken away, all we wanted to do was take ground balls, play catch and compete again.”
On Feb. 26, the Vikings got their wish. Playing six games in the span of three days, the Vikings faced off against some of best competition in DII, including No. 4 University of Texas Tyler and No. 7 Texas A&M Commerce.
“Playing for the first time in almost a year was crazy and so much fun,” senior Ashley Mickschl said. “We all definitely had first-game jitters, but… it came together just like riding a bike—we just went out there and did what we knew how to do.”
Coming away from weekend 4-2, Melstad is extremely pleased with how her team played, especially after facing southern universities who have been practicing outside for months.
“Many coaches schedule cupcake teams to get wins and build confidence,” Melstad said. “Our confidence comes from playing the tough teams and getting tested. We know right away what level we need to be at.”
Melstad said she likes to strengthen the team with these two-by-four games.
“If we want to be among the best in the country, we need to play the best,” senior Kendall Cornick said. “I would rather face tough competition early on, figure out what we need to do, make those changes early on.”
Mickschl and Cornick are just a few of the talented returning starters that serve as leaders on the team. Senior Abbie Lund ended 2020 with a team-high .483 average and junior Mary Pardo finished with a .696 slugging percentage. Melstad believes that these experienced players are one of the factors that could lead them to another postseason run.
“Anybody can have one good year,” Melstad said. “But I believe that the talent, leadership and the intangibles are on our side to have another run in the postseason.”
One of the “intangible” factors that Melstad believes sets her team apart is the culture.
“When we recruit, we look for student-athletes that buy into our culture […] and uphold the standards of our program,” Melstad said. “I look for girls who really care about their future and family […] and are playing for the people around them, before and after them.”
Mickschl and Cornick both agree that the softball program is so much more than a group of athletes playing a sport.
“My teammates and I pride ourselves on holding each other accountable in any aspect of our lives,” Mickschl said. “That involves getting after people if they are not meeting our high standards, but also becoming one big team and one big family […] that just takes care of each other no matter what.”
Cornick said the team has a supportive atmosphere.
“We have a lot of talent from the outfield to the infield to our pitchers and catchers,” Cornick said. “Combine that with our work ethic and our culture, the sky is really the limit.”
To Melstad, it all comes back to the mission of Augustana.
“Being a part of Augustana softball is something special,” Melstad said. “My goal is for each of my players to leave the program better than when they found it, and that’s what Augustana is all about.”
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