As a young squad with a first-year head coach, the Idaho State softball team fits the profile of a team that would be disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, which canceled the season in the midst of ISU’s best run to that point.
But the Bengals aren’t choosing to see it that way.
“I felt like we were making a lot of progress and doing a lot of good things,” infielder Emma Bordenkecher said. (But) right now, we’re just looking at it as an opportunity to have some more time to get better and work on the things that we need to work on, even though we’re not together. We’ve been having meetings and stuff and just talking about the things that we want to do better for next year and continue to build off of.”
Idaho State was finishing up its out-of-conference tournament schedule when the coronavirus started forcing cancellations.
After winning three of five, including a win over Power 5 program Purdue, at Colorado State’s tournament in early March, the Bengals were gearing up to head to Los Angeles for a tournament at Loyola Marymount — their final games before starting Big Sky Conference play.
With college basketball conference tournaments being canceled left and right, ISU practiced on Wednesday and prepared to fly to California on Thursday morning.
“There had had been phases, where they said, well, there’s not going to be any fans, and then (one of the other) schools had dropped out,” ISU coach Cristal Brown said. “We were still going until about 11:30 that night, so we were about five hours away from leaving for the airport (when we) got the final word that they had just canceled it.”
The coronavirus cut short an important transitional year for the Bengals. Brown, a successful Division III head coach at Whitworth, replaced Candi Letts as ISU’s head coach in the offseason and explicitly targeted the program’s culture as something she wanted to change.
“We were just working on building a team culture, and I feel like we were getting on our way to building a new culture that we’re going to represent for the next few years to come,” Bordenkecher said. “(Brown) really (based) our whole system just off of being a family and supporting each other, loving each other, but also making sure that we’re critiquing each other in positive ways. I feel like that’s something we kind of struggled with in previous years, is a little bit of negativity, but this year we’ve improved on that immensely.”
Off the field, both Brown and Bordenkecher said things were moving in the right direction as players got used to the new coaching staff.
On-field results were more muddled, but the Bengals did end on a good note, beating Kennesaw State, Purdue and Colorado State — and playing Purdue close in a fourth game — in their final tournament before the season was canceled to move their final record to 7-14.
That might have been a true corner turned − or just a narrative-friendly stopping place. Brown thinks it might have been the former.
“(Earlier in the season), I think that we had glimpses of everything doing well at different moments,” Brown said. “We’d have a great pitching game, but then maybe we wouldn’t really put enough runs across. Or we’d put enough runs across and have a great pitching game, but then our defense would kind of unravel for just one inning. ... (At Colorado State), we had eliminated that, so we were firing on all three of those areas. We were hitting well, our pitching was doing well, and our defense had kind of come together, so we wanted to ride that out some more.”
The Bengals were a good-hitting team. Bordenkecher’s monstrous .492 batting average led Big Sky players by 79 points, but four other ISU regulars hit .288 or better, and Idaho State was third among conference teams in batting average and tied for first in on-base percentage.
The pitching was good enough to get the job done — led by senior ace Kelsea Sweeney, who put up a 3.68 ERA, ISU’s team ERA of 5.09 was fourth in the seven-team conference — but ISU struggled on defense, making 36 errors in 21 games and fielding .937, next-to-last among Big Sky teams.
All six of ISU’s top hitters will return — Bordenkecher was a senior, but she’ll be the only one of ISU’s four seniors to use her NCAA-granted extra year of eligibility to return to the program next year.
Sweeney is one of the seniors who won’t be back. She was the only ISU hurler with an ERA under 5 last year, meaning the Bengals will need to cobble together a new rotation in 2021 out of several unproven pitchers.
“It’d be great should one or two of them emerge as quote-unquote aces, but the fact of the matter is, if none of them emerge as aces, that’s fine, as long as we’ve got five committed pitchers who understand their role and can each give us quality innings,” Brown said.
Those, of course, will be questions for next year.
In 2020, Brown was happy with the progress her team made — despite the unforeseen and abrupt ending.
“Sometimes coming in as a first year into a program, for everybody involved ... there can be challenges, just being unsettled,” Brown said. “It really was a pleasurable experience, and I think that everybody made the most of the newness of that scenario, and that we were doing some really good things. So, even though it wasn’t quite a complete season, I think that we can all look back and call it a success. We definitely made some strides and we’re building some things up and heading in the right direction and so hopefully we can just hit the ground running come fall.”