Concordia softball produced stellar season

There's good, and there's really good.

Concordia University's softball team was really good this season, as in 56-4 and ranked No. 1 in the nation good.

Concordia, though, wrapped up pool play in the NAIA national championship tournament Saturday with a 2-0, eight-inning loss to Brenau University in a win-or-go-home game, and missing out on a chance to advance to the eight-team, double-elimination bracket that determined a national champion in Gulf Shores, Ala.

The Eagles finished their remarkable season 56-4, setting all kinds of school records and even national marks.

The Eagles won their first two games of pool play thanks to a perfect game by Katie Cotta in an 8-0 victory over Talladega College last Thursday, and an 8-2 win over Bethany College fueled by Amanda Fama's grand slam last Friday.

But in the pool play championship, Concordia and Brenau were tied 0-0 before Brenau scored twice with two outs in the top of the eighth inning, then retired the Eagles in the bottom of the inning to advance.

"I just got through telling them, there's nothing I can tell you that's going to make you feel better, but looking back in a year from now, this is the foundation of our program," Concordia head coach Crystal Rosenthal said immediately after the loss. "They've been outstanding both on the field and off the field. This is the most fun team I've ever coached by far. There's absolutely nothing to be disappointed [about] in this season.

"It's hard to take this. There's only one team that gets to walk away the national champion, and unfortunately it's not going to be us this year, but they helped put a program on the map and I'm really, really proud of them. I couldn't be happier for the season that they had."

Indeed, it had been a dream season for the Eagles, who excelled every step of the way. They won the Golden State Athletic Conference regular season with a 15-1 record, then won the conference tournament. Along the way, they set an NAIA record with 44 consecutive wins.

"Probably no one believes me when I say this, but I don't think we noticed the streak until we were like 30 games in," Rosenthal said. "I knew we won a lot of games, but I don't think the girls focus on that. They focus on each game and when the game is over, they move forward."

They were talented and deep, which is reflected in the players' individual statistics. There is Cotta, a junior who transferred from Delta JC in Stockton and went 20-1 with a 1.02 ERA, the only loss coming in the season's final game. She had four no-hitters this season, including the perfect game. She earned first-team All-American honors.

"When she's on the mound it helps us feel like you don't have to be perfect necessarily, because she's going to pick you up," Rosenthal said. "She gives you a certain sense of 'We'll be fine.'"

Courtney Young (12-0, 0.95), Jennifer Simons (11-0, 1.75) and Brittani McGue (10-2, 1.44) also have been stellar on the mound.

Offensively, the Eagles were led by Fama, the senior shortstop and team leader who smashed 26 home runs, drove in 70 and batted .450. She also earned first-team All-American status.

"She's probably, flat out for me, the best player in the nation," Rosenthal said. "She's the most talented player we've ever had in our program. She just presents so many problems for other teams. She can bunt for a base hit, she's fast, and she can put the ball over the fence.

"She's put up career numbers in almost every category, but she's meant more to us than her production. Her leadership is second to none. She's a loose player, she's the jokester on the team. She's helped change the culture of this program."

Katie Carson (.418, 17 home runs, 61 RBIs) and Jenna Jorgenson (.411, nine home runs, 53 RBIs) also have put up big numbers for the Eagles. Both were named to the All-American second team.

Rosenthal, in her fourth season running the program, was impressed with her team, but not totally surprised. She and her coaching staff have been building toward this, winning 41 games her first season, then 42, then 47 last year. She said her team had no weaknesses.

"We've worked very hard the last four years to build a solid, deep, athletic team," said Rosenthal, a former player herself at Concordia who is in the school's athletic Hall of Fame. "And we're fortunate that every kid, knock on wood, has stayed healthy and is eligible. We're deep, and our great players have played great and our role players have played great. So it's been a great season in terms of balance."

Concordia's athletic program has come up big recently, winning a national championship in men's basketball earlier this year and in baseball last year. The school also won a men's basketball title in 2003 and one in men's cross country in 2001.

This would have been the first for a women's team, but Rosenthal is keeping things in perspective.

"The national championship is definitely our goal, but what I told our team at our first fall meeting was you give me everything you've got, every game you play and don't look back or have any regrets," Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal said probably the biggest reason for her team's success was not necessarily the talent, but how they came together as a team off the field as well as on it.

"Team camaraderie probably has been the difference for us," she said. "You can't put your finger on it. There's not a drill you can do to create it.

"We don't do a lot of team bonding; I don't like to force that on them. I always tell them I want you to respect your teammates. I don't need you to like each other. That's up to you guys. You can be friends with whoever you want to be friends with. But this year, for whatever reason, they really enjoy each other."

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