‘Love, sweat, and tears’ lead to softball’s historic spring
In the fall of 2016, Kayla Hatting and Julie Graf ’21 arrived on the St. Olaf College campus as the new head softball coach and a first-year pitcher, coming to a program that had not recorded a winning season since 1998.
Five years later, the program has strung together five straight winning seasons, culminating in St. Olaf’s first Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) regular-season title and NCAA Tournament appearance in 25 seasons this spring.
It did not take Hatting and Graf long to make their mark, as St. Olaf went 26-12 overall in 2017, with Graf earning MIAC Pitcher of the Year and National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Second Team All-America honors in her first collegiate season. After missing out on a spot in the MIAC Playoffs by one game that season, the Oles got into the tournament in 2018 and 2019 with records of 23-18 and 27-14.
Heading into the 2020 season, St. Olaf had high hopes of competing for a conference championship and getting into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 23 years. The Oles got off to a 7-1 start that included four victories over teams that made the NCAA Tournament the year before. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, ending St. Olaf’s season after eight games.
As difficult as it was for the coaches and student-athletes to process an abrupt end to a promising season, it also brought the team closer together and served as motivation heading into 2021.
“I truly believe that the heartbreak of losing the 2020 season brought this team together,” Hatting says. “They took nothing for granted, enjoyed their time together, and worked their tails off for the last 15 months to get where they did this year. (The 2021 team) is the most selfless team I have ever coached; we all knew that we had to sacrifice a lot to have a full and successful season, and they all agreed to be fully committed to this program, each other, and the journey we had planned.”
I truly believe that the heartbreak of losing the 2020 season brought this team together. They took nothing for granted, enjoyed their time together, and worked their tails off for the last 15 months to get where they did this year.Head Softball Coach Kayla Hatting
In addition to the COVID-19 protocols that made it possible to play a full season this spring, the plan Hatting referred to also included winning a conference championship and making an NCAA Tournament appearance.
“A conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance had been on all of our minds since March 13 of last year (the day the season ended),” Hatting says. “We all knew that we wanted this to be the year to bring a conference title back to this program for the first time in a long time. We knew it was possible and talked about championships all season long.”
After starting the season with a pair of non-conference splits, St. Olaf went a program-record 20-2 in conference play to secure the regular-season title and the top seed in the MIAC Playoffs. The Oles eventually fell twice to St. Thomas in the MIAC Playoffs, meaning the team would have to await word on if it would receive one of just seven at-large bids into the NCAA Regionals.
After sweating it out for almost the entire duration of the selection show, St. Olaf earned the final at-large bid available to get into the NCAA Tournament for the third time in program history and the first time since 1996. The Oles advanced all the way to the regional final in Waverly, Iowa before falling again to St. Thomas.
For Graf, the regular-season conference championship and the chance to compete in the NCAA Tournament were major factors in why she decided to come back for a fifth season after the pandemic shortened what was supposed to be her senior season in 2020.
“Those team accomplishments mean so much, especially how much we have endured and overcome to achieve them together,” she says. “They represent the years of love, sweat, and tears we have put into this program coming to fruition. I know we will look back on these accomplishments as a turning point for St. Olaf softball that we are proud to have been a part of.”
Those team accomplishments mean so much, especially how much we have endured and overcome to achieve them together. They represent the years of love, sweat, and tears we have put into this program coming to fruition.Julie Graf ’21
For their roles in helping the Oles to the historic season, Hatting was named the MIAC Coach of the Year by her peers and Graf was named the MIAC Pitcher of the year for the second time. Graf was also honored as the first NFCA First Team All-America selection in program history and was joined on the All-America Teams by Hannah Matthies ’21 (third team).
Along with Kaelin Sbrocco ’21 and Ally Bode ’21, Graf and Matthies were part of a senior class that was instrumental in turning the St. Olaf program around from the nearly two decades of losing seasons to one that played for a regional championship for the first time.
“These seniors left footprints on this program and on all of us that will never be forgotten,” Hatting says. “They have been through every imaginable high and low together and embraced it all. This senior class has built a nationally recognized program on the field and a culture of excellence off the field. They showed us how to be selfless leaders, how to respect the game, how to love each other on the good and bad days, and how to enjoy each moment along the way. There is not a ‘thank you’ great enough to express what they did for Ole Softball, and they are four of the greatest humans you will ever meet.”
This senior class has built a nationally recognized program on the field and a culture of excellence off the field. They showed us how to be selfless leaders, how to respect the game, how to love each other on the good and bad days, and how to enjoy each moment along the way. There is not a ‘thank you’ great enough to express what they did for Ole Softball, and they are four of the greatest humans you will ever meet.Head Softball Coach Kayla Hatting
In addition to holding program records in wins (80), appearances (137), starts (106), complete games (70), shutouts (22), innings pitched (719.0), strikeouts (1,326), and strikeouts per seven innings (12.04), Graf concluded her career fifth in NCAA Division III history in strikeouts per seven innings and eighth in strikeouts. The records, accolades, and other individual accomplishments, however, are not what will stick with her and are not the impact she hopes to leave.
“I hope that I was a teammate and leader that my teammates were proud to play alongside, and I hope I made them feel as loved and supported as they made me feel,” she says. “I will remember the incredible teammates and competitors that have come through this program, as well as the unconditional support shown and felt amongst all Ole student-athletes and coaches.”
“I do not think it is possible to put into words Julie’s impact on this program or how truly special of a human being she is,” Hatting adds. “Not only is she the hardest worker on the field but she had such a high level of expectation for herself and this team and was willing to do anything to surpass those expectations. She is one of the most humble and selfless humans and puts her heart into everything she does and loves her people unconditionally. Imagine a student-athlete that has the amount of talent and work ethic to be one of the best pitchers in Division III history and shows up every day as her teammates’ biggest fan. That is Julie Graf, and that is why she was so successful.”
Imagine a student-athlete that has the amount of talent and work ethic to be one of the best pitchers in Division III history and shows up every day as her teammates’ biggest fan. That is Julie Graf, and that is why she was so successful.Head Softball Coach Kayla Hatting
Despite her playing days now being behind her, Graf continues to be excited about the future of the program she and others put so much effort into elevating. “With the quality human beings, leadership, commitment, talent, and athleticism that is returning and joining St. Olaf softball,” she says, “I see this being a program that will continue to compete at the highest level of Division III for many years to come.”