No matter what sport or what level they might be at, every college athletic program has their own standard of excellence that they hold themselves up to.
For the Olivet Nazarene University softball program, that standard can simply be defined as making the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics National Tournament while coach Hannah Gardner has been involved.
The Tigers compiled a 40-10 record this season, including an unblemished 11-0 schedule, on their way to this year’s national tournament, the third time in Gardner’s four years as head coach that the Tigers found themselves in the national title hunt.
Gardner, who was a four-time NAIA National Tournament qualifier, two-time first-team NAIA All-American and NAIA Player of the Year in 2014 as a Tiger, said it’s the mindset of each girl that collectively culminates in success on seemingly a yearly basis.
“It’s never just clocking in and clocking out of a workout or practice, everything very much has a purpose behind it,” Gardner said. “The girls’ mindset is to not be satisfied with the status quo — they want to challenge themselves and make the most of their four years.
“Talent takes a huge portion of that, but that mindset is what gets wins in those tough games.”
This season, a handful of local players contributed to the Tigers’ successes — Emily Carstens (Peotone), Makenna Emerson (Coal City), Megan Lanie (Momence), Alyssa Pusateri (Bradley-Bourbonnais) and Miranda Southall (Wilmington) were all members of this year’s squad.
Gardner said that the area’s rich and competitive softball tradition helped shape them into the competitors they’ve needed to be at the college level.
“It’s their competitiveness,” Gardner said. “It’s the people they are and where they come from, that competitive mindset coming from an area so much talent and competition.”
And nobody was able to use that competitiveness to their advantage more than Carstens, who earned a bevy of honors, ranging from Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference Player and Pitcher of the Year honors to NAIA and National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-American recognition.
At the plate, Carstens led the NAIA in doubles per game (0.56), was second in total doubles (28). She also finished in the top 10 in a pair of pitching categories — wins (28) and innings (217 2/3).
Gardner said it was Carstens’ continual growth as a player, never a step in the wrong direction, that has been most impressive from her ace.
“Her four year journey, each year, she was developing more and more,” Gardner said. “That’s incredible in itself to keep growing and not plateau or have a down year.
“She’s consistently grown, not just physically, but her knowledge, comfort in mound and box, she matured to an All-American.”
Southall also earned her share of recognition this season, her junior campaign, joining Carstens on the NFCA second-team All-America list.
She said she played travel ball growing up with three of her fellow area teammates and played against all four in high school (Southall, Carstens and Emerson all played in the Interstate Eight Conference), which allowed her an added level of comfort when she stepped onto campus three years ago.
“I played travel with Emily, Alyssa and Makenna — I knew all of them coming in, we all played together, and I played against them,” Southall said. “I knew what they were capable of and coming in as a freshman, I had three girls that came in and helped me settle in.”
Playing locally at the collegiate level allowed Southall to stay up-to-date with her former school, Wilmington, as the Wildcats finished the season at 24-4 with an IHSA Class 2A Regional title.
“The seniors now on this team were freshmen when I was a senior,” Southall said. “Seeing how much they progressed and their dedication, and with the underclassmen, seeing how much they’ve progressed and come along … it was amazing.”
While Carstens and Pusateri graduated, the other three local phenoms from this year’s club will be back for the 2020 campaign next February, where another trio of local standouts will join them. Daily Journal 2019 Co-Player of the Year, Beecher pitcher Kayla Hon, will join Manteno pitcher Kori Fricke as freshmen pitchers for the Tigers, and former Bobcat shortstop Kate Landis will be transferring from St. Francis for her sophomore year.
“It’s going to be awesome playing with girls that I have had to play against during high school the past couple of years,” Hon said. “There is a ton of talent on the team, and I’m so excited to be a part of it.”
Gardner said that with a mix of returning talent and new talent, both locally and as a whole, the Tigers will hope to advance past the opening round of the NAIA National Tournament in 2020.
“People like Kori and Kayla have seen a lot of success in their high school years, and I’m eager and looking forward to that transition — I want them to hit the ground running,” Gardner said. “And we’ll have a great group of seniors that, now that they’ve had that taste of success and the national tournament, will set the bar even higher for our program.”