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Facility upgrades add appeal to championship-winning softball program

Softball team with their trophy

Members of the 2022 Washburn softball team pose with their MIAA regular season championship trophy. Photo by Gene Cassell, Washburn Athletics Communications

From The Ichabod - Fall 2022
By Chris Marshall

For a sport that begins its season outdoors in February, there’s always a chance weather will wreak havoc on the schedule. College softball doesn’t have the luxury of a major league grounds crew to get the field in playing shape, so on snowy days, Washburn Coach Brenda Holaday and her team pick up shovels and dig until they see green.

That led to a frustrating number of cancellations when the team played on a grass surface. The Ichabods played just four games on their home field in 2019. Major facility upgrades in 2020 – including new fences and bullpens, additional seating and, most importantly, a synthetic field – have helped Washburn compete on a national level.

Since beginning play on Gahnstrom Field, named after Bill and Emilie Gahnstrom for their generous support of the team, no team has been better at defending its turf. In the 2022 season, the Ichabods were 26-0 at home, 45-15 overall, won the MIAA regular season championship and qualified for the NCAA tournament, the second appearance in Holaday’s five-year tenure.

“It’s a beautiful facility now, which helps in a lot of ways,” said Holaday, who inherited a program with one previous MIAA title and added two in the past four years. “Obviously it helps with recruiting, but also it allows us to practice the way college teams should be practicing. We can practice on our own field now instead of the football field and take practices inside the Indoor Athletic Facility if we need to.”

Even after ditching the grass field, the Ichabods still found themselves digging out of trouble early in the year. The team lost six of its first eight games, then weather nixed six games scheduled on grass fields in Emporia. Cancellations in a rival town may provide a reminder of how far Washburn’s facilities have come, but at the time, all the Ichabods wanted was a chance to turn their season around. On Feb. 20, Holaday’s team did just that, taking the home opener and rattling off 17 straight wins.

“After every game, you’d look at Twitter and see it was a 14-game, 15-game win streak,” said sophomore third baseman Marrit Mead. “It’s something you look at but don’t put too much thought into because there’s no guarantee for what will happen in the next game.”

Another win streak, this time 24 games, extended into the postseason before a loss to Rogers State in the MIAA tournament. The season ended with two losses in the NCAA regional tournament, but the Ichabods proved they can do more than compete with anyone in the country – they can beat them. Among the two dozen straight wins was a doubleheader sweep of Rogers State, the eventual national champion.

“Those games were huge for us,” said sophomore Jaycee Ginter, who threw a one-hitter and scored on Ashton Friend’s walk-off home run in a 2-0 win against Rogers State. “I knew we were good all season, but playing and beating teams like that proved we can really go on and accomplish what we want if we push ourselves.”

Often, when a program experiences one of the best seasons in school history, it’s because the stars aligned for a stellar group of seniors in their last hurrah. Washburn had just three on the roster, Friend, outfielder Maddie Stipsits and pitcher Raegen Hamm, which gives reason to believe the team’s rise will continue for years to come. Ginter and Mead both received multiple All-America honors after their second collegiate seasons.

“Anytime someone’s named All-American, it means you’re the best of the best at your level,” Holaday said. “If you’re around Maritt and Jaycee, and if you followed their careers, you know they stand among the best, but there’s a feeling of validation.”

Both Kansans were recruited to Washburn when the new field and indoor facility were in the works. Ginter, a Berryton native, and Mead, from Overbrook, knew they’d be among the first to play in front of large crowds on a synthetic surface.

“It’s exciting around our team because we have local kids choose this who could’ve gone a lot of places,” Holaday said. “We rarely play a game that’s not standing-room only all around our field. The Washburn and Topeka communities around us have been so supportive.”

The indicators of success are starting to snowball, and unlike the stuff that falls from the sky, it won’t keep the Ichabods from staying on schedule.

“The first step coming into a new program was to get better. Next is to earn respect,” Holaday said. “The third step is to beat teams you’re not supposed to beat. When you have nationally-ranked teams come in and you sweep them, now you’re at that point.”

The Ichabod Fall 2022 magazine cover

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. View the current and past editions

 

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