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College softball: Senior send-off for Bulldogs

Minnesota Duluth softball player Hannah Schmoll felt discomfort in her right wrist last spring and finally had it checked out. Turned out Schmoll had torn a ligament in her throwing hand, and on July 31, she had surgery to repair it. That's not e...

Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.comMinnesota Duluth’s Becky Smith prepares to throw a fielded ball to first base during a doubleheader against Minnesota-Crookston on April 11.
Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com Minnesota Duluth’s Becky Smith prepares to throw a fielded ball to first base during a doubleheader against Minnesota-Crookston on April 11. The Bulldogs begin play today in the NCAA Division II tournament.

Minnesota Duluth softball player Hannah Schmoll felt discomfort in her right wrist last spring and finally had it checked out.

Turned out Schmoll had torn a ligament in her throwing hand, and on July 31, she had surgery to repair it.

That's not exactly the way you want to start your senior year, but Schmoll put that behind her by not only turning in her best season this spring, but one of the best seasons ever by a Bulldog.

"I think I've had a career high in every single category," Schmoll said. "It's your senior year, there's nowhere else to go after that, so you give it your all. I think it's a mentality and a mindset more than anything else. I can't imagine going out any other way."

Schmoll, a center fielder from Grand Rapids, is batting a team-high .459 with a school-record 59 runs and 42 stolen bases in helping UMD advance to the NCAA Division II tournament, where the fourth-seeded Bulldogs (40-13) open play against fifth-seeded Arkansas Tech (43-17) in the Central 1 Regional at 3:30 p.m. today in Winona, Minn.

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"Everyone is equal on this team," said Schmoll, UMD's all-time hits and runs leader. "There's no freshmen anymore. Everyone knows their role."

A program-best four Bulldogs were selected to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-Central Region team on Wednesday, with Schmoll and fellow seniors Becky Smith and Natalie Wright, and freshman Jordyn Thomas of Hermantown, all making the second team.

Another freshman, Jessica Bren, could have been included in that group with a school-record 16 home runs this season.

UMD is ranked No. 25 in the latest coaches' poll released Wednesday, cracking the Top 25 for the first time since 2003. The Bulldogs showed signs of closing the gap on the likes of Winona State and Augustana at last week's NSIC tournament.

"We're really close to getting over the hump. We just have to play a complete game," UMD coach Jen Walter said. "Our pitching last weekend was fantastic, our defense was solid as usual, but our hitting was just tight and a little bit passive.

"It's harder to score runs in the postseason, we understand that, but I think we can hit better than we did. They just have to trust in what they've done their whole lives. Don't overthink it."

Smith, UMD's career RBIs leader, has an incredible 65 RBIs and 130 total bases in just 53 games this season, both school records.

Schmoll, Wright and Smith, UMD's three seniors, have batted 1-2-3 in the lineup all season.

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"That's been the easiest thing I've done all year," Walter said, laughing. "As they go, we go. If they're going to struggle, we're going to struggle, there's no question about that, even with Thomas and Bren. They're freshmen. They could be wide-eyed or oblivious to the circumstances, and we hope it's a little bit of that."

Don't expect Schmoll to back down. She's one tough Bulldog.

Schmoll's hand was in a cast following her surgery, and she wasn't fully healthy until December, but she did what she could despite missing fall practice. Instead of working on her game in the traditional sense - hitting, catching, throwing - Schmoll took a more analytical approach, watching game film and using a wiffle bat to work on her hitting mechanics in the mirror.

"It was very different, but I just had a grind through it," Schmoll said. "It was tough, especially being my senior season, but I just tried to be a leader and have some grit. It turned out to be good little break. It helped me focus on the little things."

Schmoll, who just graduated with a degree in psychology, wasn't highly recruited out of high school but has proven doubters wrong.

"I'm glad UMD took a shot on me," Schmoll said. "It's been a blessing and an honor to play for this program, especially with the teammates and best friends I've had here. It's not always about the level but the location. I love the school and the area and being part of the Bulldog family. In my exit interview with the athletic department, I was asked, 'If you could go back and do it again, would you?' And I said, '100 percent.' "

UMD (40-13) VS. ARKANSAS TECH (43-17)

What: NCAA Division II softball tournament opener

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Where: Winona, Minn.

When: 3:30 p.m. today

Related Topics: GRAND RAPIDS
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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