A year unlike any other
The 2020-2021 school year will go down as one of the most unique years in IU Southeast Athletics’ history. After the COVID-19 pandemic led to a premature end to the 2020 spring sports season, the athletic department had to navigate a year beset by rising cases across the state. It was not easy for the Grenadiers. Many contests, especially in volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball, were postponed and rescheduled due to COVID-19-related issues.
The hardest-hit sports for the Grenadiers were easily both basketball programs, who both had to deal with one quarantine period after another. As Indiana cases for COVID-19 spiked in the final two months of 2020, the Regional Campuses of Indiana University decided to put all athletic-related activities, including practices and training, on hold between Dec. 19, 2020, and Feb. 1 of this year.
“Obviously, it was disappointing to go on hiatus, but health and safety will always take precedence when it comes to our decision-making process,” IUS athletic director Joe Glover said. “Athletics is very important but at the end of the day, nothing is more important than the well-being of our student-athletes.”
Far fewer cancelations were needed when baseball, softball and tennis began their seasons in the spring, with the outdoor settings of the tennis courts and the renovated Koetter Sports Complex helping to make it easier to maintain CDC guidelines such as social distancing. While the department’s COVID-19 guidelines remained strict during the start of the spring sports, the advent of multiple vaccines eventually allowed for relaxed restrictions.
“This was an extremely challenging year for our student-athletes, coaches, and staff due to the ever-changing COVID-19 realities in our area and collegiate sports as a whole, [and] I am immensely proud of everyone in the department for adapting to meet these challenges and for completing every sports season,” Glover said of the previous year. “Each area of the academic year provided its own set of unique challenges, and the spring season was no exception. At the end of the day, we worked hard to provide a positive experience for our student-athletes, and I believe we collectively achieved that mission.”
Despite the difficulties of a sports season that started amid a global pandemic, the Grenadiers continued to field teams with quality athletes despite limited funding, especially in the River States Conference. Led by historic seasons from baseball and softball, 26 Grenadiers were named to All-RSC teams.
While the pandemic resulted in a shift towards almost entirely online classes, the change did little to affect performance in the virtual classroom. In the fall, a record 87 Grenadiers, 66% of all student-athletes enrolled in a varsity sport, were named to the Fall 2020 Athletic Director’s Honor Roll. This was followed by a similarly strong spring as 78 Grenadiers were named to the Spring 2021 Honor Roll.
Like their athletic prowess, many Grenadiers’ academic excellence did not go unnoticed in the River States Conference, with 35 student-athletes also being named to RSC Scholar-Athlete teams.
“As always, I am so proud of each of our student-athletes who were named to the AD Honor Roll this year,” Glover said. “Balancing a demanding academic workload along with athletic time commitments is no easy task, and these student-athletes executed it flawlessly.”
Many of these honors came after what had to be the longest summer in these athletes’ young lives. Starting with the IUS Volleyball team, the athletic department began its strange journey through the 2020-2021 sports season.
Despite an early COVID-19 outbreak that shut down preseason action for two weeks, Eric Brian’s Volleyball squad began the season as scheduled and on a decent note, winning three of their first five matches. However, this was followed by a rough stretch in which the Grenadiers lost five of their next six, highlighted by sweeps at the paws of RSC powerhouses IU East and IU Kokomo.
The Grenadiers struggled during this stretch due to the strength of their schedule and COVID-19, the latter causing multiple postponements and cancelations. They also had to deal with an undisclosed, short-term injury to rising freshman star Emilee Organ during a portion of this slide. While frustrating, the Grenadiers did not let the mid-season struggles and postponements hinder their morale.
“It was frustrating, but we were just grateful to have a season and had to roll with the punches,” Brian said. “We focused on the positives and reminded each other to be grateful for the opportunity to play at all.”
During the rough stretch, there was a bright spot when senior libero Kenna Burman surpassed Bobbi Malott’s program record for career digs during a loss against Lindsey Wilson College on Oct. 22. She also became the first Grenadier in program history to record 2,000 career digs, currently sitting at 2,126.
“Kenna is such a unique and relentless competitor,” Brian said. “She is probably the most consistent player I have ever coached because her attitude, effort and performance are always the same, every day. No matter what, she always has a good attitude, gives her best effort, and supports her teammates.”
Starting with a sweep of Brescia two days later, the Grenadiers caught fire, finishing the regular season by winning their final five matches. The late hot streak against conference opponents helped the Grenadiers to a 9-7 record in league play, securing a spot in the RSC Tournament as the third seed in the RSC West. The transition to postseason play did not change anything for the Grenadiers as they swept the second seed in the east, West Virginia Tech, in the RSC Quarterfinals.
The Grenadiers’ winning ways were put to the test when they went up against undefeated IU Kokomo in the RSC Semifinals. Having lost to the Cougars twice in the regular season, the third time was not the Grenadiers’ charm, their playoff hopes dashed by the eventual RSC Tournament champions in four games (25-17, 25-12, 20-25, 25-19).
“We had a healthy level of respect for our opponent and knew we needed to give our best performance of the season if we wanted to stand a chance against them,” Alexis Bassett, senior middle blocker, said. “After the match, the locker room was full of contradicting emotions; some people were somber, some were relieved, and some were neutral.”
The loss to the Cougars may have spelled an end to the Grenadiers’ championship aspirations; they did not end without some of their stars earning conference honors. Burman led the way by earning her second RSC Defensive Player of the Year award in the past three seasons and being named the Grenadiers’ representative to the RSC Champions of Character Team.
Senior setter Hannah Sipe joins Burman on the All-RSC First Team, the former’s third first-team selection and fourth overall. Freshman outside hitter Emilee Organ was also honored with a spot on the All-RSC Second Team after leading the Grenadiers with 161 kills and 3.3 kills per set.
With season’s end, Sipe, Burman, and Bassett were all lost to graduation. Despite NAIA legislation saving the trio a year of eligibility due to COVID-19, all three seniors confirmed shortly after the RSC Tournament that they would not return for a fifth season.
“I have thought about coming back to play again [this] year, but I’m not going to,” Burman said. “I’ve decided that my volleyball career is officially over and it’s time to move on to the next chapter in my life.”
While normally played in December, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NAIA Volleyball National Tournament to be moved to April. The Grenadiers may have been eliminated from postseason contention by this point, yet it did not stop them from getting some work in on March 16, when they traveled to Campbellsville University to take on the host Tigers and Columbia International.
The round-robin matchup did make for a unique collegiate debut for freshman setter Hannah Brown, who was not on the Grenadiers’ roster until after the 2021 season. Brown, a 2020 Scottsburg High School graduate, was on the Grenadiers’ radar a couple of years ago but explored other collegiate commitments. According to Brian, Brown spent the 2020-2021 season under his nose at IUS after a recruiting offer at another school fell through.
“I didn’t know she ended up at IUS until I began exploring setters from the 2021 [freshman] class and learned she ended up here and was already on campus,” Brian said. “I contacted her to see if she had any interest [and] after a few conversations, we decided to bring on her onboard. She’s a great kid with a good work ethic, [yet] a little rusty after having not really played for nearly a year now. She came in on short notice and has already helped the team quite a bit.”
Brown looks to join a young sophomore core that includes Organ, setter Brandy Eisenback, right-side Izzy Stallard, middle blocker Abigail Vogel, and outside hitter Hannah Miller. Alongside these youngsters, the Grenadiers will also field a veteran group led by middle blocker Jennie Malone, who led the Grenadiers with 48 total blocks.
“I think the girls are really looking forward to this coming fall,” Brian said. “With the news around the pandemic getting better, and the change we noticed in our team spirit, we are all excited about what we’ll look like in the fall.”
Alongside the old guard includes seven fresh high school products hoping to make an immediate impact, including the likes of Brownsburgs’ Kate Murphy, Louisville Males’ Macy Graves, Muncie Central’s Alexis Franks, Leo’s Averee Yoder, and Holy Angels Academy’s Jessi Kramer.
Hoping the winds of normalcy have returned, the Grenadiers will open the 2021-2022 sports season by traveling to Bowling Green, Ky. to compete in the Vette City Classic, joining a field that will include their first test of the season in #22 Lindsey Wilson.
Coming off of a 2020 campaign that saw them finish as the runner-up in the RSC Tournament, Robin Farris’ Women’s Basketball squad looked to build off a solid 20-12 (9-7 RSC) campaign. The season looked to be off to a decent start as the Grenadiers won three of their first five contests.
However, after an 87-49 loss to Saint Francis on Nov. 13, the closest the Grenadiers could get to a basketball court was the Activities Building for a rare practice. Multiple COVID-19 hiatuses alongside the rapidly increasing number of cases throughout the state forced the athletics pause that began on Dec. 19. The next time the Grenadiers competed against another school was on Feb. 2 against RSC rival Brescia, almost four months after their previous contest.
“We got into basketball shape during conditioning and then when someone tested positive we weren’t able to practice so we would get out of shape and then it would be a repeated cycle,” Emmy Ralph, sophomore point guard, said. “On top of that, the IU shutdown was hard because that was a few months of not being able to do what we love and made us have more doubt about finishing the season. Thankfully, we were able to come back and finish out the season which we are all very grateful for, but overall this past year was tough mentally, physically, and emotionally.”
The long hiatus, alongside multiple winter storms in late February, prevented the Grenadiers from establishing any rhythm for the remainder of the not-so-regular season, going 2-3 to close it out. Despite earning a first-round bye in the RSC Tournament, the inconsistency doomed them in the RSC Quarterfinals against Brescia, a team that had only one victory on the year and whom the Grenadiers defeated twice. The Grenadiers held the lead for most of the contest, but a late rally by the Bearcats forced overtime before upsetting the Grenadiers 68-62. The Grenadiers finished the season at 5-6, their first season with a sub-.500 record since the 2004-2005 campaign (15-19), while also playing their fewest games in a season since the program’s inaugural campaign in 1973-1974 (2-6).
“Overall, I guess we were fortunate to play 11 games,” Farris said. “But three two-week shutdowns combined with the mandated one-month IU shutdown really made it a challenging year.”
The Grenadiers had questions coming into the season after losing their top four scorers from the 2020 campaign, including three seniors in Madi Woods, Ariana Sandefur, and Hannah Coleman, as well as Natalie Fichter transferring to Spalding University during the offseason. The roster turnover did help unearth some hidden gems, including junior guard Lauren Lambdin, who followed a hot-shooting 2020 RSC Tournament by leading the Grenadiers with 19.8 points per game, her play earning her a spot on the All-RSC Second Team.
Following a solid freshman year, Ralph turned in a strong sophomore campaign alongside Lambdin in the backcourt, averaging 14.5 points while leading the Grenadiers with 43 assists.
Despite NAIA legislation that will not charge any fall/winter athletes a year of participation due to COVID-19, the Grenadiers will lose a pair of key role players in Josie Woods and Kirstie Henn. Woods, the Grenadiers’ lone senior and Champions of Character team representative, finished her collegiate career with 400 points and 269 rebounds.
After redshirting during the 2019-2020 campaign for personal reasons, Henn finished third on the Grenadiers with 12.2 points per game. Despite being classified as a sophomore during the season, Henn is on the verge of completing her college degree in December, her focus transitioning to family life.
“My focus is graduating and providing for my family,” Henn said. “I knew from the beginning of the season it was going to be my last year. I have a one-year-old that I must put first, and college basketball is not in the plan anymore.”
Defense and shooting had been the Grenadiers’ primary weaknesses last season, shooting 40.6% overall while recording only 29.4% from three-point range.
With a potentially more regular season on the horizon in 2021-2022, Farris hopes to round out his roster by adding good shooters and athletic forwards to replace the departing Woods and Henn. However, with the limited scholarship funds at the Grenadiers’ disposal, recruiting such players will be difficult compared to other schools.
“[Recruiting] will not be easy because other schools with a larger scholarship budget like shooters and big athletic forwards as well,” Farris said. “We are still in the bottom fifteen percent of athletic aid given in the NAIA.”
Alongside Lambdin and Ralph, the Grenadiers expect the return of their quartet of freshman from the past season, led by 6’2 forward Collette Nice. The Salem High School product began her collegiate career by leading the Grenadiers with 74 total rebounds in 11 games, an average of 6.4 per game, and 11 blocks. The Lions already have prominent representation on the Grenadiers with Nice and guard Leah Miller, yet that will grow larger thanks to the addition of 5’11 forward Karly Sweeney.
Alongside Sweeney, the Grenadiers have also acquired the talents of Kentucky Region 8 Player of the Year and Ms. Basketball finalist Brynna Blackburn, who helped lead South Oldham High School to consecutive District 29 championships and finished runner-up in the 8th Region Tournament during the 2019-2020 campaign. For those who recognize the name, Blackburn is the daughter of former Grenadier Men’s Basketball standout Keith Blackburn, who helped the Grenadiers reach their first-ever NAIA National Tournament appearance during the 1999-2000 campaign.
“Looking into this upcoming season and being the only senior, it’s extremely exciting,” Lambdin said. “Knowing the girls that I have been playing with, and the ones coming in, I think that we have a ton of potential. We seem to be motivated and in the same headspace when it comes to what we want as a group, and how we are going to get there.”
After their 2020 campaign ended in a 101-92 loss at the paws of IU East in the RSC Semifinals, Wiley Brown’s Men’s Basketball squad looked to use the previous year as a foundation for 2021. The Grenadiers had to be confident, as they returned a majority of their roster from a year ago, led by All-RSC selections David Burton and Jocobi Hendricks.
Unfortunately for the Grenadiers, they started the campaign on a sour note as they dropped their first three contests. Those losses were the easy part as the COVID-19 pandemic caused numerous postponements, forcing the Grenadiers to take a month-long hiatus.
The Grenadiers managed to squeeze in three contests in December, led off by an 82-72 loss to top-ranked Georgetown College. While the loss moved the Grenadiers to 0-4 to start the strange year, Burton provided a positive moment when he became the 32nd Grenadier in program history to eclipse the 1,000 career point plateau. Burton was the first to accomplish this feat since the trio of Demetrius Stanton, Joe Jackson and Jamie Johnson all eclipsed the mark during the 2017-18 season.
“Getting my 1000th point feels good, though I would much rather it come with a win,” Burton said. “When I first came to IUS that was one of my goals to score 1000 points since in high school I came nowhere near. Having to wait over a month to get wasn’t that big of a deal to me because I felt like I was going to get some time just didn’t know when.”
The achievement couldn’t have come sooner for Burton before the athletics pause forced the Grenadiers into a second break from competition. By the time the Grenadiers returned to action on Feb. 2 against Brescia, they had played only six games over a nearly four-month span. The Grenadiers finished the regular season by winning two of their final three contests, hoping to turn their fortunes around in the RSC Tournament.
Due to COVID-19 wrecking havoc throughout the season, the RSC expanded the conference tournament to include every team who wished to compete. The expanded postseason field gave the Grenadiers myriad possibilities, ending up playing Rio Grande in the first round of the RSC Tournament. A hot-shooting first half by the RedStorm proved too much for the Grenadiers to overcome despite a rally in the latter half, falling to the RedStorm 80-68. The Grenadiers ended the season at 4-6, their first season under .500 since 2015-16 (9-19), while also playing the fewest number of contests in the program’s recorded history.
“COVID had a big toll on everyone this year from a mental aspect,” Jared Osborne, senior shooting guard, said. “It was really hard, trying to stay motivated when games were constantly being canceled, but every team had to deal with that [as well].”
Burton once again led the Grenadiers in many categories, most notably averaging 17.2 points and 6.6 rebounds during the shortened campaign. Alongside his aforementioned passing of the 1,000 point plateau, the Trinity High School product earned a spot on the All-RSC First Team for the second consecutive season, as well as being named the Grenadiers’ representative to the RSC Champions of Character Team.
Junior point guard Anthony Wales Jr. also had a strong second year in a Grenadier uniform, finishing second in scoring with 12.8 points per game. His primary impact was on the defensive end, leading the RSC with 2.3 steals per game, garnering him All-RSC Second Team honors. Despite the 10-game season and his solid contributions, Wales’ primary focus is on how he can contribute entering his third, and possibly final, year for the Grenadiers.
“It was a tough year, playing only 10 games last year,” Wales said. “Hopefully, I’m able to make the [All-RSC] First Team and take my team to the National Tournament. That’s one of my goals.”
With a full year of eligibility remaining coming into this year, Burton and Osborne, the program’s two four-year mainstays, initially considered returning for a fifth season. Over the summer, however, both seniors confirmed they made the decision to hang their sneakers and conclude their careers.
Even with the possibility of bringing in transfers, expect the Grenadiers to field a very young program in 2021-2022. Alongside the expected seniors of Wales Jr. and Glenn Hill, many of last year’s freshmen will be looked upon to step up, including guard Caleb Brown and forward Trey Hourigan among others. Add in an upcoming freshman class including players such as Clarksville guard Jaren Starks and Madison wing Nick Center among others, the Grenadiers will see 2021-2022 as a chance to reload for a hopefully more mundane season.
“We have no regrets, we got to play 10 games, we just wished it would have been a normal season,” Coach Brown said. “Everybody else had to do the same thing, so it is what it is on that.”
Finishing the 2020 season with a 4-6 record, head coach Joe Epkey came into the season knowing that his young squad was just on the cusp of reaching their potential. What wasn’t expected was the sudden loss of his program’s top two players in juniors Lauren Winchell and Camille Greenwell, both of whom were lost to premature graduation. That left Epkey with a roster consisting entirely of freshmen to build the 2021 edition of his team around.
“The women’s team was in good shape to compete for a conference championship [last year], and we had a great recruiting class come in this year,” Epkey said. “We lost both Greenwell and Winchell, who would have made us a top 25 team for sure if they hadn’t graduated early.”
The Grenadier youth movement was led by a trio of true freshmen in the sisters of Audrey and Adalyn De Witt and Anna Littlefield. Audrey especially showed the prowess to be a program cornerstone for the next three seasons, losing only three total games en route to securing the top women’s flight at the RSC Fall Invitational in late September. She concluded her strong fall by advancing to the ITA Midwest Regional’s singles semifinals at Indiana Wesleyan in early October.
Adalyn De Witt looks to be a strong #2 behind her twin sister for years to come, as the two also took the top women’s doubles flight at the RSC Fall Invitational. Adalyn also advanced to the singles’ round of 32 at the ITA Midwest Regional while the sisters teamed up to make it all the way to the doubles semifinal before falling to Indiana Wesleyan.
“I felt that my toughest match in singles was against Grace College and my toughest match in doubles was against Indiana Wesleyan in the semifinals,” Adalyn De Witt said. “In both situations, they were very good opponents, but I believe I did not play to my best ability.”
Picked to finish third in the RSC Preseason Coaches Poll, the Grenadiers were slow out of the gate, dropping three of their first four matches. Their play improved as the season turned over to conference play, with the Grenadiers winning their first four straight matches against IU Kokomo (4-3), Brescia, and Oakland City (Both 7-0), and Midway (4-1).
Their strong start in RSC play helped to cushion the blow they felt when they confronted the best that the conference had to offer, starting with perennial powerhouse Asbury, who easily dispatched the Grenadiers 6-1 on March 27. The Grenadiers used that loss as a motivator when they faced another significant challenge in IU East to conclude the regular season. Despite playing what Epkey believed to be with the most heart and determination they played with all season, the Red Wolves scraped by with a 4-3 victory, giving them their first regular-season title in program history.
Finishing with a conference record of 6-2, the Grenadiers entered the RSC Tournament as the #4 seed after finishing in a three-way tie for second in the standings. Despite the lower seed, the Grenadiers breezed through their RSC Quarterfinal matchup against Midway 4-0, setting up a much-anticipated rematch with the top-seeded Red Wolves. With the match tied at two courts apiece, the Red Wolves rallied to take #2 and #5 singles to seal the match, ending the Grenadiers’ season at 10-8 (6-2 RSC).
“While the results are difficult, our team knows how to improve on our weaknesses and our strengths,” Audrey De Witt said. “I realize as a newcomer there is still much to achieve.”
While the season did not end the way Epkey wanted, he took solace in knowing that his young Grenadiers can only improve over the next few seasons as they expect to return all seven members of the roster this coming year. Expected to lead the charge once again will be Audrey De Witt, who went undefeated at #1 singles to earn both RSC Player and Newcomer of the Year, along with being named to the All-RSC First Team. Adalyn De Witt also had a strong freshman year after going 11-3 at #2 singles, garnering herself a spot on the All-RSC Second Team.
While IU East has emerged as the latest obstacle in the Grenadiers’ journey towards sustained success, it comes with losing a long-time foe in Asbury. Having resided in the RSC since 1971, Asbury departs the conference as part of joining the ranks of NCAA’s Division III. With a young, talented core in place coinciding with the departure of one of their biggest tennis rivals, the Grenadiers have a prime opportunity for success ahead of them over the foreseeable future.
“They are very young but I was extremely impressed by our freshman who all did a great job of contributing all year,” Epkey said. “We are not losing anyone, so we’re just trying to improve the players we have as we look for the right addition to our team.”
Much like the women’s team, Epkey experienced a youth movement with his Men’s Tennis squad after the Grenadiers finished the shortened 2020 season 8-5. Unlike their female counterparts, the Grenadiers benefited from a pair of upperclassmen to provide leadership in fifth-year senior Brock Winchell and third-year sophomore Jerid Inman.
“Knowing it was my last season I was just going to try my hardest and give it everything I had mentally and physically,” Winchell said.
Aside from Winchell and Inman, the Grenadiers entered 2021 with a roster comprising entirely of freshmen. While they lost three of their first five matches, the Grenadiers caught fire as they began RSC play with victories over Brescia, Oakland City, and Midway. With a perfect 3-0 record in conference play, the Grenadiers’ biggest test came in the form of RSC powerhouse Asbury on March 27. Despite several courts coming down to the wire and multiple promising performances, the Grenadiers fell to the Eagles 4-3.
Along with a 5-2 loss to IU East in their season finale, the Grenadiers finished the regular season with a 4-2 slate in conference play. Securing the conference’s third seed, the Grenadiers traveled to Top Seed Tennis Club in Nicholasville, KY. for the RSC Tournament, which began with a 4-2 victory over Brescia.
Standing in their way to a potential seventh-straight trip to the RSC Championship match was IU East, who, unlike their regular-season matchup, was now at full roster strength with the addition of Max Faundez. That extra man proved the difference as the Red Wolves swept the four semifinal courts needed to advance, forcing the Grenadiers to miss the RSC Championship match for the first time since 2013. Winchell noted that despite the Grenadiers having the advantage on multiple courts, their greatest enemy was time.
“If I won before they clinched the result probably would have been the same,” Winchell said. “I think if we won the doubles point the singles matches would have been different.”
Winchell had a strong season at #1 singles despite having a season record of 6-7, notching a spot on the All-RSC First Team with a 3-3 record in conference play. Joining Winchell in garnering conference honors include second-year freshman Cade Burman, who went undefeated in conference play en route to being named to the All-RSC Second Team. True freshman Michael Wright rounded out the honors by being named the Grenadiers’ representative of the RSC Champions of Character Team.
While the 2021 campaign was not ideal, finishing with an 8-9 record (4-2 RSC), the Grenadiers are undergoing a bit of a youth movement due to only losing Winchell to graduation. Everyone else from the 2021 squad is expected to return, all of whom can only improve upon a solid season. Along with the returnees, Epkey will bring on a pair of freshmen in 2022 to continue the youth movement in duPont Manual’s Brent Reynolds and Center Grove’s Seth Jasek. Both will look to prove themselves alongside the old guard in the fall before beginning the journey again in the following spring.
“[Reynolds] can be a top-of-the-lineup guy right away and gives us a strong replacement after losing Winchell,” Epkey said. “Jasek from Center Grove will come in to give some depth and bring a strong work ethic. We are moving forward the best we can and trying to reload the team to make sure we can continue competing for championships.”
Competing for those championships, specifically in the RSC, will get considerably easier with Asbury departing for NCAA Division III following the end of the 2020-2021 academic year. While IU East will remain the Grenadiers’ top rival atop the league, the RSC title picture has officially been blown wide open.
Coming off a historic yet shortened 19-2-1 season in 2020, Joe Witten returned a majority of his roster for the 2021 campaign. The Grenadiers, who began the season ranked #24 in NAIA, began the season on a hot note, winning their first six contests against Alice Lloyd, Grace College, and IU South Bend.
After splitting a midweek doubleheader with #5 Marian University, the Grenadiers had their pitching depth tested when star freshman right-hander Brooklyn Gibbs suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in her left thumb. While ace Hannah Ogg kept the Grenadiers in most contests throughout the season, junior Kasey Pearson and freshmen Morgan Jenks and Gabby Mahoney were utilized to fill innings in Gibbs’ absence.
The Grenadiers began to receive reinforcements as they began RSC play, starting when junior infielder Maggie Lubbehusen made her season debut after missing much of the season’s first half with a broken foot. Alongside Gibbs making her return to the circle in early April, the Grenadiers started the conference portion of their schedule by sweeping their first two series against Brescia and Oakland City.
“If you have a ship in distress, you’re looking for a lighthouse, and Brooklyn was our lighthouse,” Witten said of Gibbs’ return. “She’s that one person we’ve always leaned on before her injury because she’s so talented in so many ways.”
The 4-0 start to conference play was only the beginning for the Grenadiers as they once again established themselves as one of the top teams in the league. For much of the conference schedule, the Grenadiers battled fellow powerhouse Rio Grande for the top of the standings, coming down to the wire after the two teams exchanged 1-0 victories during a doubleheader on April 25.
While splitting the twin-billing with the RedStorm, the Grenadiers lost their chance at the RSC Regular-Season title after being upset in the first game of their season finale against Carlow. That made their journey through the RSC Tournament all the more precarious as their season was hanging in the balance. The pressure intensified after the Grenadiers fell to the RedStorm 6-2, putting them one loss away from season’s end.
Needing to advance to the RSC Championship to receive the conference’s second automatic bid to the National Tournament, the Grenadiers confronted West Virginia Tech in the loser’s bracket final. While the Grenadiers held a 4-1 lead for much of the game, the Golden Bears broke through for three runs against Ogg to tie the game. After two tense extra innings, senior outfielder Madeline Probus saved the Grenadiers’ season, punching their ticket to the NAIA Opening Round with a walk-off solo home run.
“I actually thought she was gonna throw a backdoor curveball, but I scooted up in the batter’s box and choked up a little on the bat so that I could hit the ball before it broke,” Probus said. “I’m definitely not a home run, I know that’s not who I am, but it just looked like a meatball coming down the middle of the plate, so I just swung.”
Before they could worry about the National Tournament, the Grenadiers first had to confront the RedStorm in a rematch of the 2019 RSC Championship. Similar to 2019, the Grenadiers rode the right arm of Gibbs and timely hitting to hand the RedStorm their first tournament loss 4-3, setting up another winner-take-all finale.
The RedStorm broke through early against Gibbs in the second game, yet the Grenadiers kept the game within 5-2 going into the sixth. With a pair of runners on with two outs, freshman catcher Erin Templeman crushed a game-tying three-run home run. The RedStorm took the momentum right back in the seventh on a Cierra Clark two-out solo shot off Ogg. Despite getting runners on in the final frame, the RedStorm retook their place atop the RSC with a 6-5 victory to win the RSC Championship.
“We were a squeeze bunt that was an inch, at the most two inches foul, away from going up one run,” Witten said. “Going into that last inning, [Rio] turned the tables, so it came down to a game of inches.”
While the Grenadiers fell short of their second straight RSC Tournament title, they were fortunate to find themselves on a bus ride to Columbia, Mo. for the NAIA Opening Round. The four-team field would be no easier than the RSC Tournament, which included a pair of top 10 teams in #7 Columbia College and #9 Marian.
The Grenadiers began their journey with a grudge match against the ninth-ranked Knights, with whom the Grenadiers split a doubleheader back in March. In a marquee pitcher’s duel between Hannah Ogg and Knights’ ace Sydney Wilson, it took until the top of the seventh before the Grenadiers broke through for four runs, three of which came on a pinch-hit home run by freshman Macie Zink to secure a 4-0 victory.
Their bats faltered in their next matchup against Mound Mercy as Mustangs’ ace Jayla Witzany allowed only two hits and struck out 12 to advance to the regional title game with a 1-0 victory. The Grenadiers’ meanwhile had to confront the seventh-ranked Cougars in the loser’s bracket final. Similar to the Marian contest, the Grenadiers and Cougars engaged in a pitcher’s duel that needed an additional inning to conclude.
After Gibbs worked around a pair of walks in the top of the eighth, Templeman led off the bottom half by crushing the only pitch she saw for a walk-off solo home run. The blast, Templeman’s third of the postseason, lifted the Grenadiers to a 1-0 victory and setting up a rematch with Mount Mercy. The Grenadiers now needed two victories over the Mustangs, who came into the finals undefeated in the Opening Round, for a chance to advance to Columbus, Ga. for the NAIA World Series.
“Right before my last at-bat, I went up to [Coach Witten], who asked me how I felt and I told him this is my third time seeing her through. I’m just missing it,” Templeman said. “As I stepped into the box, I was relaxed and just turned on the inside pitch. I definitely was extra excited, it was a feeling like no other.”
Unlike their first meeting, the Grenadiers were able to figure out Witzany the second time around, tagging the right-hander for five runs. Gibbs rewarded her offense with a complete-game shutout to give the Grenadiers a 5-0 victory, forcing another winner-take-all finale. For the biggest game of the Grenadiers’ season, Witten handed the ball to Ogg once again.
Just as they did in their first meeting, the Mustangs broke through against Ogg, scoring a run in the third and fourth. Meanwhile, the Grenadier bats struggled to connect on Emily Oler’s drop ball, unable to scratch a run across until the sixth inning. Despite the tying and winning runs reaching base in the seventh, a groundball by second baseman Lindsey Nelson to second signaled the end of the Grenadiers’ season.
“We were just one hit away from possibly going to the World Series,” Witten said. “I know the players are disappointed because they could taste it, but they’ll always go down as winners with me.”
While their World Series hopes were dashed when they were so close, the Grenadiers returned to New Albany knowing that their 2021 campaign was one for the ages regardless. Along with a program-best 48-18 record, the Grenadiers set single-season records with 553 hits, 111 doubles, 27 triples, and 817 total bases.
Much of the Grenadiers’ success can be attributed to the right arm of Ogg, who ranked third and fourth in the NAIA with 30 wins and 242.2 innings. Along with those numbers, she set single-season records with 243 strikeouts, 53 appearances, 36 starts, and four saves. Her outstanding season earned her a treasure trove of awards, including RSC Pitcher of the Year, All-RSC First Team, NAIA All-American Honorable Mention, and National Fastpitch Coaches Association First-Team honors.
Offensively, the Grenadiers relished due to a collective effort from a number of players, resulting in six position players being named to All-RSC teams. Senior first baseman Kelsey Warman brought the power with a team-high nine home runs and 51 RBI, while senior outfielder Madeline Probus sped her way to team leads with nine triples and 14 stolen bases. Both were named to the All-RSC First Team while Warman also joined Ogg on the NFCA First Team.
Many young players mixed in with the veterans very well in 2021. Second-year freshman third baseman Ellie Jackman followed a strong 2020 campaign by batting .357/.386/.536 with three home runs and 36 RBI. Along with Jackman as the current future core of the Grenadiers, Zink and Templeman’s key postseason moments helped cap off stellar openings to their collegiate careers, combining for 12 home runs and 53 RBI. Templeman’s efforts saw her named to the All-RSC First Team as a true freshman.
“Moving on to the years to come, I think we are in great shape. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Templeman said. “I also wouldn’t want to be the teams we play next because we are hungry.”
Along with Ogg, Warman, and Probus, the Grenadiers will also lose shortstop Kaitlyn Flowers, infielder Maggie Lubbehusen. right-handed pitcher Kasey Pearson and outfielder Ashtyn Sharp to graduation. That group of seniors leave IUS knowing the program is in good hands, as Zink, Jackman, Templeman and Gibbs look to be just a small part of a young core that could possibly build off of 2021’s World Series run. Adding to the relatively young Grenadier roster is a wave of incoming freshmen such as pitchers and first basemen Hannah Nunemaker of Lanesville and Sydney Kuzma of Hanover Central, Gibson Southern infielder Emilee Edwards and Columbus North pitcher Meghan Waggoner among others.
Witten has also looked into bringing more experienced students in from other programs to provide veteran leadership in the dugout. While nothing is finalized on that front, he’s struck gold with transfers in recent years, including stars such as Ogg (Danville Area C.C.) and Warman (Cincinnati Christian). With the right veteran pieces to compliment a talented young core, a trip to the NAIA World Series may happen sooner than you might think.
If that does happen, it will do so without Witten, who resigned as skipper in mid-July following a successful nine-season tenure as the second head coach in program history. As he prepares to head to Charlestown High School for his next coaching assignment, the four-time conference Coach of the Year knows that whoever his successor is will have a talented roster to welcome them.
“The players that are coming back are excited to pick up where they left off,” Witten said. “We have a tremendous amount of confidence with the team that’s left and with players coming in, we’ll just pick up where we left off and hopefully be even better next year.”
A year removed from the historic season that almost was, Ben Reel’s Baseball squad tried to reclaim the magic of their shortened 18-1 campaign in 2020. Despite opening the campaign with a three-game sweep of Pikeville, the Grenadiers, who started the season with a program-best ranking of #11 in NAIA, started 2021 on a slow note.
Following their sweep of the Bears, the Grenadiers were swept by #5 Tennessee Wesleyan, who won the NAIA World Series in 2019. After a 2-2 showing at the Cajun Collision in Sterlington, LA., the Grenadiers suffered an embarrassing four-game home sweep against Huntington University, beginning the season with a less than ideal 5-10 record.
“Coming off the Cajun Collision, I think there was mental fatigue,” Reel said. “We spent probably 25 hours on a charter bus, traveling through five or six states; it was exhausting. These guys could handle it because they’re in the prime of their athletic careers. The key is that hopefully, they would learn from this and respond.”
The Huntington series served as a wake-up call for the Grenadiers, who dealt with injuries to many key contributors, such as sophomore outfielder Derek Wagner and junior right-handed pitcher Jacob Frankel among others. After the four-game sweep, the Grenadiers’ initial response was winning 16 of 17 contests after the calendar turned to March. This hot streak was highlighted by an absurd 33-15 victory over Lindsey Wilson on March 10, as well as sweeping their first four series in RSC play against rivals Rio Grande, IU Kokomo, Ohio Christian, and Asbury.
The RSC posed little challenge to the Grenadiers as they went 26-1 in conference play, their only defeat coming in the third game of a series against fellow RSC powerhouse Point Park 8-0 on April 10. Clinching their third consecutive RSC Regular Season Title, the Grenadiers entered the RSC Tournament as the top seed but found themselves a game away from elimination after a 6-4 loss to Point Park in the winner’s bracket final.
With their backs against the wall in their next contest, the Grenadiers rallied in extra-innings 6-5 victory over Asbury to confront the Pioneers in the RSC title game. Despite the Pioneers needing only one victory to win the tournament and the Grenadiers needing two, the Grenadiers took the first game 3-1, followed by using a four-run ninth to secure both an 8-2 victory and their first RSC Tournament title since 2011.
“It was very relieving [because] this team has worked through adversity all year,” junior relief pitcher Brenden Bube said. “It was just nice to see it all come together in the end for us.”
Having established themselves as the best team in the RSC, the Grenadiers turned their attention to Kingsport, Tenn., the site of their fifth-straight NAIA Opening Round. The odds for the Grenadiers making the NAIA World Series seemed slim as they shared a five-team field with the defending World Series champion and top-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan.
Before the Grenadiers could think about the #1 Bulldogs, they first had to overcome a 6-0 first-inning deficit in their first matchup against Warner University (Fla.). After junior catcher Brody Tanksley walked off the Royals with a two-run homer, senior outfielder Marco Romero followed with a solo shot in the ninth to give the Grenadiers a 4-3 victory over the Bulldogs.
Despite winning the loser’s bracket final against Mount Vernon Nazarene, the Bulldogs found themselves in the unfamiliar role of underdog against the Grenadiers, who were one win away from Lewiston, Idaho. That worked into the Grenadiers’ favor as their offense ultimately outslugged the powerful Bulldog bats to win 16-10, securing their first-ever trip to the Avista NAIA World Series.
“Going into the game with a six-run lead, I knew all I had to do was throw strikes and give us a chance to finish strong,” senior closer Jacob Frankel said. “Throwing the final strike was one of the best feelings. In a blink of an eye, you remember everything that got you to that point and all the time spent with the team. We had been through a lot up to that point which made it feel even better. I was grateful to be in that position.”
Amidst the euphoria of achieving a program first, the Grenadiers again suffered hardship when they learned that senior left-handed pitcher Hunter Kloke could not travel to Lewiston due to a positive COVID-19 test less than 48 hours before departure. Alongside losing RSC Player of the Year Matt Monahan for the entire postseason due to medical issues, the Grenadiers now had to go as far as they could without their ace.
Despite diminished pitching depth, the Grenadiers began their stay at Harris Field with a 4-2 victory over #19 Concordia University (Neb.). That set up a rematch with #4 Central Methodist, who previously beat the Grenadiers 10-3 on Feb. 21. While the Grenadiers held the Eagles’ offense scoreless for the first three innings, the Eagles powered their way to an 11-5 victory, putting the Grenadiers just one loss away from going home.
“When it came to adversity on the field we didn’t even care, we almost laughed at it. We just kept going,” Clay Woeste, junior second baseman, said. “We just kept going and never quit on each other, we loved each other too much to quit and wanted to stay together as long as we possibly could. we wanted to compete together as long as we possibly could, and to do that, that meant we had to win.”
With their backs against the wall once more, the Grenadiers survived for at least one more day when they came back to defeat #17 Keiser 9-7 on Memorial Day, extending their program record in wins to 50. The next day, the Grenadiers entered another slugfest against #11 Faulkner. Despite keeping pace with the Eagles throughout, including tying the game in the sixth, a five-run seventh for the Eagles ultimately closed the curtains on the Grenadiers’ season 14-10.
While the Grenadiers fell short of their ultimate goal, they held their heads high knowing how historic 2021 was. Since their 5-10 starter, the Grenadiers went 45-6 and set program records in almost every offensive category. After standing as one of five NAIA baseball programs remaining when the calendar turned to June, the Grenadiers’ historic finish helped them secure #6 in the final NAIA Top 25 poll, another program-best.
Part of that success is credited to the efforts of a talented senior class, led on the mound by potential MLB Draft pick Hunter Kloke. At the plate, Monahan’s 14 home runs and 55 RBI not only named him RSC Player of the Year, but also an NAIA All-American Honorable Mention. Alongside the aforementioned Frankel, Reynolds, and Romero, the Grenadiers also parted ways with third baseman Jake Scott and pitchers Jared Jones and Payton Bledsoe.
“This season has been the best one of my career to experience just because of everything we went through as a team,” Scott said. “We overcame a lot of obstacles and continued to push through all the way till the end. I think that’s what made this team successful and so fun to be apart of. We were just tough and didn’t quit.”
Despite losing a strong group of seniors, the Grenadiers will return a majority of their ball club in 2022. Expected to lead the charge once again will be second baseman Clay Woeste, who was named to the NAIA World Series All-Tournament team. Catcher Brody Tanksley, the Grenadiers’ other All-American Honorable Mention, will also continue to provide pop with his bat after crushing an RSC-best 18 home runs. On the mound, the Grenadiers will look to a pair of sophomores in right-hander Cade Reynolds, the RSC Newcomer of the Year, and southpaw Gavin Knust to lead the pitching rotation after strong freshman campaigns.
While the Grenadiers will return much of their World Series roster, it didn’t stop the Grenadiers from bringing in quality newcomers. Having lost three of their top arms in Kloke, Trevor Reynolds, and Frankel, along with recording a 5.00 staff ERA, pitching became a primary objective. Some arms fresh out of high school coming into the program include Greenwood right-hander Zakary Rasener and Oldham County righty David Hinkle among others.
At the plate, the Grenadiers will receive experienced reinforcements led by former Asbury shortstop Trevor Campbell. The 2019 RSC Freshman of the Year and an All-RSC First Team selection in 2021, Campbell is the latest in a long line of talented transfer acquisitions for the Grenadiers, which includes recent alumni such as Monahan, Keiser transfer Rynei Olivero, and former Vanderbilt standout Nolan Rogers among others.
Typically by transferring in-conference, athletes would have to redshirt for a year to maintain competitive balance. With Asbury’s departure from NAIA to NCAA Division III, typical in-conference transfer rules will not apply, meaning Campbell will be eligible to play immediately.
“There was a lot going on at Asbury financially and with the sports going Division III, that made me leave,” Campbell said. “Talking with some of my new teammates, I understand how bad they want a national championship. I’m right there with them.”
With a mixture of promising youth and talented veterans joining the large remainder of the 2021 club, many Grenadiers see the idea of returning to Lewiston as a borderline guarantee. Reel, meanwhile, wants to also expand his program in other ways.
“I think we’re all really motivated for next year, we return pretty much everybody and we’re gonna sign an incoming class that’s really good,” Reel said. “Our goal next year is to host regional. I want to host an Opening Round, so everyone can see with their own eyes.”