OU softball's championship season may be historic

Greg Mast
The Ottawa Herald

The Ottawa University softball program is used to success and winning. The Lady Braves have averaged 25 wins in the past 20 years under the guidance of coach Jay Kahnt.

Softball has been one of the best programs in the OU athletic department and in the NAIA for two decades.

Ottawa University hurler Casson Rassmussen has been a rock in the circle for the Lady Braves.

Kahnt led Ottawa to its fifth KCAC regular-season championship this year. Ottawa has one KCAC Tournament title, five NAIA Tournament appearances and three NAIA World Series appearances under Kahnt.

Ottawa University outfielder Sammi Bates has helped ignite an explosive offense this season.

The 2021 softball team is on pace to break the all-time single-season wins mark (40) and has the best winning percentage in program history.

Ottawa racked up a 37-5 mark and a No. 21 ranking in the NAIA en route to the conference title.

Kahnt said this season’s players have something extra beside talent.

“The chemistry this group has is something special,” Kahnt, who has 492 wins, said. “They enjoy playing beside each other. They trust each other. Early on, we were a little up-and-down. We did not play great softball early, but we were finding ways to win. Once they got their feet wet, then they started figuring out their roles. The freshmen have come in and proven themselves. Once they got comfortable, we really started playing great softball.”

The coach said the players quickly gelled together, something that does not happen each year.

“Everyone is on the same page and has the same goals,” Kahnt said. “Friendships off the field are huge too. They get along so well. If somebody makes a mistake, there is no finger-pointing. ‘Let’s don’t worry about it and get to the next pitch.’ That when you know you have something special when people don’t point fingers.”

Focus and Consistency

Usually teams have some ups-and-downs during a season, but this year’s Ottawa team has been steady. Ottawa put together three double-digit winning streaks and finished the regular season with a 16-game winning streak. Ottawa was undefeated during the month of April.

Kahnt said the pandemic may have played a factor in the consistent level of play. Softball was yanked away in the spring of 2020 at the start of the conference season.

“It made everybody value playing again,” Kahnt said. “Without warning, something can be taken away from you. For us, it just clicked. May be that is what we needed to make sure we were focused all year. Our players have not taken days off like in the past.

“We learned that there is not always a tomorrow. They have done a great job of handling that. We talked before the season started that the team that wins the conference title will be the one that navigates this best. They handled everything with a lot of maturity.”

Friends Debacle

The Lady Braves were sailing along, undefeated in conference, when Friends came to Ottawa in late March. Friends slapped around Ottawa that day sweeping a doubleheader, 12-0 and 9-3. Kahnt said that was may have been a catalyst to building a championship season.

“They came in here and smacked us around,” the coach said. “We had not been punched in the face like that. We did not respond very well. We spent a couple of days talking about ‘we are going to get everybody’s best shot.’ You are going to get punched once in awhile. It is not — if you get punched — but how you respond when you get punched.

“When you get thumped twice by Friends, you can go one of two ways. When you get knocked down, you find how much you have learned. We responded so well since then when we have gotten down so early. Getting beat by Friends was a turning point in our season.”

The players learned quickly how others viewed the Ottawa program. The other teams play with a higher focus when taking the field against Ottawa.

“Because of the success of our program that last 10-15 years, teams get up to play us,” Kahnt said. “When teams do beat us, they celebrate. [The Friends losses] were the wake-up call.”

Talent Shines Through

Kahnt had a feeling this team could accomplish special things during fall practices.

“In the fall, talent-wise, I thought we were a top-15 team,” Kahnt said. “We knew we were going to start some freshmen. They were too good not to start. You worry about getting off to a slow start, starting four freshmen. I didn’t think we would be 37-5. I knew we would be pretty good once conference got here. Our goal from the get-go was winning the conference title.”

The journey was a smooth ride because of the players coming together as one.

“We thought we would have a few more bumps along the way,” Kahnt said. “Our upperclassmen did a great job of holding the ship until the freshmen got up to speed. As a group, we moved forward at a great speed. We got there much quicker than I expected. That is all credit to our players.”

Ottawa’s hitting and pitching have been top-notch all season.

“This is the deepest line-up we have ever had,” Kahnt said. “We have two that are averaging an RBI a game. Eight of our nine starters have double-digit RBIs in conference-only games.

“This offense can explode in a hurry. This is the best power-hitting team we have had. We are top-10 in doubles and triples.”

Casson Rassmussen has anchored the pitching staff and has 20-plus wins. Loralei Gilbert has caught fire at the end of the season

“Gilbert was throwing JV games early,” Kahnt said. “She is throwing well. Her confidence level is rising.”

Kahnt hopes Ottawa can maintain its consistent level of play during postseason.

“Our next goal is to win the conference tournament,” he said. “It comes down to us playing. Let’s just be us. If we can be us, we can beat anybody in the country. We have proven that.”