SOFTBALL: Seniors strive to extend season

ISU seniors Sydni Jones, Courtney Wray, Alex Johnson, Amanda Bradberry and Kelsey Kidwell — the first recruiting class brought in by coach Stacy Gemeinhardt-Cesler — are chasing their first berth in postseason play in their time as Cyclones. Photo: Zhenru Zhang/Iowa State Daily

Michael Zogg —

The Cyclones’ five seniors have accomplished a lot in the past four years. They have combined to score 420 runs, get 785 hits, and make 956 starts.

Fans at the Southwest Athletic Complex have become accustomed to seeing Amanda Bradberry diving for balls at second base, Alex Johnson driving in a run, Kelsey Kidwell patrolling center field, Courtney Wray playing nearly every position, and hearing Sydni Jones yell encouragement to her teammates from first base.

When the senior class first got to Ames in 2007, they were coming to a senior laden team fresh off of a 23-28 season.

The season was coach Stacy Gemeinhardt-Cesler’s second at Iowa State.

“It was our first recruiting class,” Gemeinhardt-Cesler said.

“I was really excited about them. I thought they brought a lot to the program. They had speed and they had power.”

Although the second year coach had confidence in the youngsters, they were unsure about what to expect out of Division I softball.

“I think all the freshmen were freaked out at first,” Wray said.

“We really didn’t know what to expect, if it was going to be like summer ball teams, if it was going to be more structured, if everything was going to be harder.”

After the initial uneasiness, the freshmen quickly adjusted to the college game.

Despite the experience already on the team, the freshman class quickly overtook them, earning 187 starts between Johnson (63), Wray (63), Bradberry (43) and Kidwell (18).

“Really, from the beginning, we have depended on them,” Gemeinhardt-Cesler said.

“They have accepted that role and responsibility and have done a good job with it.”

Not only did the freshmen get the starts, but they led the team offensively. Johnson led the team with a .320 batting average while Wray and Bradberry were third and fourth in that category.

In addition to average, Gemeinhardt-Cesler’s first recruiting class had at least two players in the top five on the team in slugging percentage, on base percentage, runs scored, hits, RBIs, doubles, triples and total bases.

“We were just a group that was ready to go,” Bradberry said. “We were those kindergartners that weren’t afraid to go to school. The moment we got here we were ready to go.”

Despite the success the freshman class enjoyed that year, the team struggled to a 24-40.

The next season, the sophomores were called upon by the coaches to lead the team.

Although they were still young, they led the team by example.

With Jones joining the team, their class now had at least four players in the top five in batting average, slugging percentage, on base percentage, runs scored and hits.

“We were on the field all the time,” Bradberry said. “The majority of us were always playing. That leadership on the field kind of carries to off the field.”

Jones agrees that her class were leaders by sophomore year because she feels they were a big part of helping her transition from junior college softball to Big 12 softball.

“Coming in as a sophomore, I looked at those girls as older than me, even though we are the same age,” Jones said.

“They had been here and had the experience. Even though I played softball my freshman year, it was nothing like what I was getting ready to play. I looked up to everybody in the sophomore class.”

Their leadership and guidance clearly worked.

Although she struggled through the tournament portion of the schedule early in the year, Jones found her stroke in conference play, leading the team with a .326 batting average, a .596 slugging percentage, and a .347 on base percentage in Big 12 games.

Behind their strong play and leadership, Iowa State improved to a 29-29 record despite playing the second half of the season without Gemeinhardt-Cesler, who had twin boys that year.

“She was our captain,” Johnson said of Gemeinhardt-Cesler. “I know it’s corny, but it’s like losing the captain of a ship.”

The next season, the team had high hopes. Armed with a talented junior class and promising young freshmen, Iowa State set its eyes on making the regional tournament.

Although the juniors continued to lead the way in almost every category, the team stumbled to a 26-29 record with an injury depleted roster and a decimated pitching staff, as then-sophomore Rachel Zabriskie was the lone healthy pitcher for the majority of the conference season.

This season, the senior class was determined to reach the regional tournament in their last collegiate season. Although the senior class has not dominated the team statistics this season, it is not because their numbers are down significantly. Rather, it is the senior class’s leadership, according to Gemeinhardt-Cesler, that has helped the younger players develop so quickly.

“We’ve done a good job of being role models for each class that has come in whether we were sophomores or now as seniors,” Kidwell said.

“Now we are in the senior role, and we are going to be looked up to no matter what, so we have to continually be a positive leader for the underclassman and set a basis for what Iowa State softball is going to be, so that, when we are gone, other people can step into those roles.”

Gemeinhardt-Cesler has said repeatedly that this is, without a doubt, the best team she has coached at Iowa State.

“When we win, now, it doesn’t feel like we snuck away with one,” Johnson said. “We really have worked hard. It has never felt so good to play the way that we do.”

A tough schedule and a bunch of close losses have the Cyclones sitting at 25-25 on the year, heading into the final stretch of the season.

The team’s final home series is set for Saturday and Sunday against No. 15 Texas before finishing up at Kansas the following weekend.

In order for the team to keep its hopes of a regional tournament alive, they must finish the season at or above .500 to qualify. If it can, its RPI of 53 will give them a chance of being selected.

“For four years, that is what we’ve worked towards,” Wray said. “We have gotten in the habit of ending our season at the Big 12 Tournament, and that is not the way that we want to end.”

As the senior class is nearing the end of their careers, they are not quite ready to be finished yet. Instead, they are striving to lengthen the season with post-season play.

“It would finally feel like all our hard work had paid off,” Jones said. “It is one more weekend that we get to play together, it is one more weekend to make memories together. A lot of the seniors are moving on with the rest of their lives after the season, so, to have that one extra week to come back and practice and extend our playing time, it would mean everything to me.”

Yet, whether or not the Cyclones are selected to the regional tournament, this year’s senior class has helped turn the ISU softball program around in the last four years.

They feel that what they have helped build here in Ames will last long after they graduate.

“I hope we are setting the pace for everyone else behind us,” Jones said.

“Throughout the years, as we have played, it is becoming less and less acceptable to lose, and I hope that tradition continues in the years to come.”