The University of Southern Indiana softball team is off to a fine start this season. In fact, it's been better than fine. It's been historic.
The Eagles opened their Great Lakes Valley Conference schedule last weekend as the No. 10 team in the country. It was the highest the softball program has ever been ranked.
“We knew we were going to do pretty well,” pitcher/ infielder Jennifer Leonhardt said. “Once we had that good start, we thought we should be up there, but we had no idea that we would reach 10. We were thrilled to tie how far the school had been [reaching No. 13 on February 27th]. When we found out we were 10th it was just crazy. We definitely feel that we are 10th, but we aren’t worried too much about it. We still want to play our game. Now teams come out and want to beat a Top 10 team, so we have to play our game.”
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Leonhardt is a big part of the Eagles' success. The freshman has quickly become the ace of the staff. Facing the NFCA preseason No. 1 -- and defending national champion -- North Alabama lineup in the season opener, Leonhardt came out and threw a complete game shutout.
“I obviously knew who they were,” Leonhardt said. “We were excited on the whole of that being our first game, because we knew that would be a true test. I knew they would have good hitting. I was excited to see how I would compare against that hitting, but wasn’t expecting to to do that well. Our defense definitely kept us in that game.”
The freshman righty is now 10-1 with a 1.46 ERA. She has struck out 73 batters and tossed four complete game shutouts, including her past two starts. A large part of her success is her battery mate, Haley Hodges.
The senior catcher is no stranger to success. Hodges was a preseason All-American as well as one of the 50 players on the NFCA Preseason Player of the Year watchlist. She was the 2016 Division II Catcher of the Year and has picked up right where she left off with a team-best five home runs.
She has also proven to be a valuable mentor.
“I was excited to have her as my catcher,” Leonhardt said. “She’s so humble and helps me so much behind the plate. She knows the times when she needs to settle me down. We work really well together. I’m glad we got the connection down so quickly.”
Leonhardt has also done it at the plate. She has helped herself out several times while she has been pitching, batting .317 with one home run. She is also adjusting to the new role of designated hitter on her off days from the circle. She will be the first to admit that it has been a challenge.
“I like hitting at the same time that I’m pitching,” Leonhardt said. “I know if I’m not pitching well that I have another opportunity on the other side of the game. I’ve also been DH-ing a lot when I’m not pitching. It’s been a difficult transition, because I have to sit back and then go in. It’s different. I think I hit better when I pitch.”
One thing that lured the Louisville native to the Evansville campus was head coach Sue Kunkle. Leonhardt felt that her coach related to players on a level that not only catered to the advancement of their athletic careers, but their careers in the classroom as well. Kunkle keeps the team loose, setting up a winning environment.
“We have the drumsticks going on the bucket in the dugout," Leonhardt said. "It is a party in there honestly.”
Last weekend, the Eagles opened play in the Great Lakes Valley Conference with back-to-back doubleheader splits. The GLVC conference has been one of the tougher conferences in DII softball the past few seasons. University of Missouri-St. Louis and Indianapolis are perennial threats to make NCAA postseason runs, while teams like Truman State and Bellarmine always are in the hunt.
Southern Indiana has been right in the mix the past few seasons. This year should be no different.
“We split both games this weekend,” Leonhardt said. “We expected more. The atmosphere is different because we know they are conference games. We have to have them. We’re glad we had this weekend because we can take a step back and take a look at what we need to work on. We know that going into games against UMSL and Indy we need to be almost perfect.”
The young freshman knows that the season is a work in progress, and no matter how hot her start has been, there is still work to be done. But for now, she's blossoming in her role as ace.
“I always want to get that first win of the weekend. If we get in a little trouble, at least we have that first game," Leonhardt said. "But I’m still adjusting. I don’t know what to expect in some games. I’m definitely more confident about the defense behind me, so I know I don’t need to be perfect.”