Bradley’s high-powered lineup was the driving force behind its fourth-place Missouri Valley Conference finish this season. The Braves averaged 6.2 runs per game in conference play, led in slugging percentage and finished second in home runs with 32.
That same lineup, however, did not have an answer for Drake pitcher and All-American Nicole Newman, who struck out 18 Braves in her fifth perfect game of the season helping the Bulldogs to a 7-0 semifinal win. It was the first time Bradley made the conference tournament semifinals since 2014.
Despite the sour ending, the Bradley softball program celebrated a season in which it increased its win total by nine to boast a 29-21 record, going 15-10 in Valley play.
“Last year, we kind of lost out on the fun, we kind of forgot how fun it was to play softball and to be a team with each other,” senior pitcher Julie Kestas said. “This year, we had a really good balance of trusting each other and maintaining a culture but also just enjoying the game.”
Finishing her 11th year, head coach Amy Hayes thought the team had great composure throughout the spring, helping it capture its most victories since 2004. The fourth-place finish is the team’s highest since 2014 despite being picked to finish eighth in the preseason poll.
“We had a group this year that really bought in and stayed focused on what was important,” Hayes said. “I think they made a real commitment to each other and to some of the things we were asking of them. They did an awesome job.”
Bradley found production up and down the lineup, posting a team batting average of .295, while slugging .514 and hitting a team record 68 long balls during the three month season.
For the first time in program history, three players hit 10 plus home runs. Junior catcher Kealia Wysocki hit 13, and junior first baseman Allison Apke and sophomore utility player Stacia Seeton slugged 12 each.
Apke, who earned Second-Team All-MVC honors, anchored the Braves lineup, leading the team with a .349 average, and a 1.143 on-base plus slugging percentage.
Wysocki was not far behind, slugging .775 to lead the team by 100 points, while posting a .421 on-base percentage.
The Braves bats garnered lots of attention, but the team’s pitching staff was also key to its success. Freshman Grace French, senior Megan Mahaffy, Kestas, junior Emma Jackson and sophomore Taise Thompson combined for a collective 3.78 ERA, sixth in the conference.
“One of the biggest shockers was probably in the circle for us,” Hayes said. “We got good innings out of [French] and [Thompson], and then it’s very rare to have three kids who can start for you. Their consistency in the circle really helped propel us to that fourth place finish.”
Kestas said first-year pitching coach Desiree Ybarra played a big role in that success.
“I would give all the credit to her,” Kestas said. “She was really motivating through everything. She created a really positive atmosphere, which correlated with the stats on the field.”
Bradley’s newcomers also had an impact. Most notably, freshman shortstop and leadoff batter Lucy Mead ranked third on the team in batting average at .337 and led in total bases. Freshman Keller van Breusegen posted a .296 average, despite battling injuries early in the season. French ended the season with the team’s only sub-three ERA with a 1.79 mark.
“[The freshmen are] very gritty, they’re very competitive and they like to have fun, but they’re a very focused group.They’re very goal oriented,” Hayes said. “They came in and they reinforced and backed up everything the seniors were asking and everything the coaches were expecting.”
Kestas, despite graduating this spring, is excited for what is in store for the softball program.
“[Our underclassmen] made a statement on our program in just their first [couple] years,” Kestas said. “When you have freshmen that are willing to step up and say ‘Let’s do that again, we can be better than that,’ that helps us seniors that can’t be everywhere all at once.”
All but four players will return next season and Hayes is thankful for the departing players’ contributions.
“We’re losing four key components; the steadiness of Mahaffy, the headiness of Habryle, the softball sense there, the competitor in Stoner and the heart in Kestas,” Hayes said. “They really were four cornerstones for us this year, and I think they laid a really good foundation.”
While the team ultimately fell short of an MVC championship and bid to the NCAA tournament, Hayes said she believes the young program has the potential to make some real noise.
“They know they can do it … I think they’re ready to go, the young ones all got a taste of it, and they all want that ring,” Hayes said.