As she heads into her 17th season as head coach, Carrie Webber shared what to expect from this special team which features nine seniors.
Following their three-hour practice, Carrie Webber, Azusa Pacific University Softball head coach, got situated for our “short” interview as I looked around her office at the two news articles that hung on her walls.
One about how she’s consistently put Christ as the foundation of the team and the second about her passion project engraving student-athletes’ names onto brand new bibles for them to keep.
It’s one thing to be a coach at a Christian university, it’s another to live out your faith every single day, especially amidst the ups, downs, wins and losses within sports.
But despite the turbulence of being a collegiate athletics coach, especially for the past 17 years, Webber makes it a point to keep faith at the heart of everything.
Going into this upcoming season, before we talked about the logistics of anything yet, I asked Webber what she was first and foremost looking forward to:
“I’m always really excited at the beginning of the year. I just love that there’s always a little bit of new with a little bit of old. So, I’m always hopeful. I’m always hopeful that we’re going to have a great season. I’m hopeful that the girls will develop wonderful relationships. I’m hopeful that they will experience Christ. I’m hopeful that they’ll deepen their relationship with Christ. I’m just always hopeful because you just never know what a year will bring.”
Seems simple as that right? While winning is great, Webber shows that there are much greater things that deem a season “successful” than just how good the team’s record might be at the end of the year.
With every new season comes adjustment within the culture of a program due to the losses of graduating seniors and the arrival of new faces, in this case, six new freshmen. Webber talked about how this year, the team had one big focus during the offseason: an emphasis on culture.
“We were very dedicated to coming in, being courageous and bold in holding each other accountable, listening to each other, and respecting each other. I’ve seen such great growth and as a result, people just experience great relationships and joy from this. One of our biggest things within the culture is how to deal with conflict. How do you respect each other, and trust each other? How do you confront each other when something’s not going the way you would like it to? And those are all things that we need in life, not just the softball field. So if we can give tools like that and work on it, then it just makes it easier in your workplace, your relationships, everything”
One thing about Coach Webber is that there is always, always, always, an underlying message to be learned in everything.
She shared how last year, while the team went in with the expectations to hold one another accountable, there were, like with most teams, many hiccups. So learning from that, reteaching the value of a good culture and what that requires from each individual person is critical to make a program thrive better as a whole. This goes not just within a sports team setting but in life outside the diamond too.
“You’re not going to always going to win on the field, or on the court, or in life. So what does God call us to do and how do we respond? How do we lean on God in those moments? What does that look like?” She adds, “If you can learn to trust and be confident with the girls around you, it does put you in a state of peace to go out and compete well, so I hope that the work we’ve put in will translate over to the field [this season].”
This year’s squad returns all but three players from their 2023 team, however, the roster does feature nine seniors; all of whom Webber holds an extra special attachment to.
This is the group she will always remember as her “COVID-19” class. The ones willing to give up a year of eligibility back in 2021 just to be willing to compete in a very abbreviated, no fans allowed, just overall weird season.
“It’s like Groundhog Day,” she tells me. “[In my 24 years of coaching], I think that this is the first year that I looked at these seniors and I genuinely can’t believe they’re seniors. These girls hold a special place in my heart because they came in knowing that they weren’t really going to get a true traditional season. So, they sacrificed a lot to just be on the field and be together, and really get to know each other.”
While she tells me of course she has high expectations for her veteran seniors, she also wants them to go out on top and experience the most success they can experience, both on the field and off it.
“Just the desire that they wanted to be her and they wanted to play. They didn’t get a full four years, like they should have. And so I am proud of them for that. I’m honored for that. And, and I feel like it’s just gone so fast, but it’ll be insanely bittersweet to watch them go out and, conquer the world.”
This special group features catcher Jaelah Burrell, catcher/infielder Aleah Delgado, outfielder Kinsey Erickson, outfielder Ally Chin, infielder Mia Alvarez, and a group of pitchers in Sydnie Sahhar, Aly Montesino, Felicia De La Torre and 2023 First-Team All-PacWest performer, Katie Korstrom.
Korstrom has been a staple piece of the team’s offense, ranking top ten in the conference with a .555 SLG%, .954 OPS, 31 RBI, 15 doubles, seven home runs and 24 walks, while compiling a .311 AVG% with 51 hits, 18 runs scored and a .399 OB% in the 2023 season.
She also has the unique ability to hold it down on defense from the pitching circle. In the previous year, she led the PacWest in wins (20) which is the most by any Azusa Pacific pitcher since 2001, according to APU Athletics. She also led in innings pitched (203.1), which also ranks the highest by a Cougar pitcher in the NCAA era (2013-present). Korstrom ranked top ten in ERA (1.45), opposing batting average (.203), strikeouts (134), and saves (2) also having 19 complete games.
However, while Kostrom has always seemed dominant, Webber shares that the Abbotsford, Canada native has improved “leaps and bounds” since her freshman season.
In her freshman year, she posted an ERA of 2.20, good for fourth in the conference and had a 7-3 record. The following year, she boosted her defensive firepower posting team bests of a 1.80 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 13 wins and 106 strikeouts across 28 games.
On being named 2024 PacWest Preseason Co-Player of the Year, Webber shared, “It’s a testament to her hard work. She’s put in a lot of hard work to get where she is. Any player that I’ve seen that puts in extra work, reaps the benefits, but a lot of people aren’t able or willing to put in the extra work. She wasn’t even hitting her sophomore year, I [told her] ‘You’re not gonna hit until you fix that swing’. And so she worked out and she fixed it, and she hit like a stud. She just has to go out and just rely on the things that she knows that she can do. ‘Don’t get overwhelmed by it, don’t think about it too much’ and just sit in her confidence, and just perform. And I think she can do that. I think she will do that.”
Joining Korstrom and the lofty group of seniors will be catcher/ infielder Caitlin DeCanio who was also named to the Preseason team. Last year, the Clovis, California native was named a D2CCA First Team All-Region performer and First Team All-PacWest performer. She ranked top ten in the PacWest with a .503 SLG%, four home runs, and three triples. DeCanio led the team at the plate with a .320 AVG% (40-for-153), with 10 doubles and 25 RBI.
Not only was she exceptional from the plate last year, but she just might be foreshadowing what she’s capable of this season after hitting the first homer of the year just this past Thursday. Her two-run shot helped rally the team to an 8-0 victory at home against Montana State-Billings. Their first win of the year following a tough opening weekend where the team went 0-3 to start.
While still maintaining that focus on cultivating a good culture, Webber has also learned from her own experiences how to not only build it during the preseason but also maintain that same energy and good team culture through a full 50-game schedule featuring several doubleheaders a season.
The softball team is known to be the “fun team” around campus. The ones that bring out the water guns on a random Tuesday or use “anything but a glove” for a chill Friday practice. But this was just recently something Webber had started to incorporate into their practices.
She shares that this recent change in practice routines was adopted into her coaching as a result of her own experience as a collegiate softball player. Following her collegiate career, she knew she wanted to teach and coach in the future yet didn’t know exactly what it would look like.
Her own experience as a PE teacher taught her the lessons she still uses today.
“One of the biggest things was you want to keep kids moving as much as possible for as long as possible. So while they were constantly moving, I was constantly adapting and changing and making things better. It’s constantly asking ‘How do I change this up and how do I make this better.’ Then ultimately, ‘How do we have fun in the process?’’
She added that since her start in coaching, she’s also realized the importance of rest and how critical it is to incorporate into a season.
“I think as I’ve gotten older, I realized that you don’t have to practice every single day. There are true benefits to rest…This is why we try to do things in practice that lighten it up and make things a little bit more enjoyable because it can get monotonous and mundane doing the same thing over and over again. So you just try to be a little bit creative within the practices and give them those little breaks.”
One aspect of rest that she incorporates into practice every single day is two minutes of prayer. She explained to me the methodology of it: “Right now it’s always at an hour and 38 minutes into practice. Because we’re Team 38. We stopped practicing for two minutes, and we just lay down and we pray. You can just lay there, you could stretch, you do whatever you want, but two minutes, you just kind of take a break. Have a little halftime.”
Webber lives by this mantra of “adapt or die” she tells me. And to her former players who might tell her she’s grown “softer over the years,” she shares, “Things change, I change, the girls change, the game changes, so, adapt or die. [It’s important to] constantly change and adapt and figure out what works for your team because every single team is different. If I were to just be rigid and say ‘This is how we’re gonna do every single thing, every year,’ then no one is gonna last long…I want to enjoy my job as much as they want to enjoy playing this game that they love.”
While it’s important to understand the underlying, internal foundation of this team, it’s time to break down just what lies ahead for the 2024 season.
Coming off a 34-26 overall record last year, the team seeks to make another successful run in the PacWest and the postseason to follow.
In 2023, the team’s 18-14 conference record resulted in a third-place overall finish in the PacWest; however, the team was able to finish second in the inaugural conference tournament in May. Their season came to a heart-wrenching end after a hard-fought run featuring back-to-back elimination games over the No. 2 and No. 3 seed in the region before falling 1-7 to Cal State San Marcos in the West Regional Championship.
This year, the Cougars are predicted to finish second in the PacWest behind the reigning conference and tournament champions, Concordia University. The Golden Eagles were ranked No. 14 in the nation going into the season and earned six Preseason All-Conference nods.
While the Golden Eagles have been a steady front-runner for the past few seasons, Webber has a few other games circled on her calendar this year:
“Every game against Biola is always a big game, every game against Concordia. I think that the games against San Marcos will be exciting. They went to the World Series last year, so I’m excited to see how we’ll do against that. And then I also think that Dominican has a chance this year to be a team that will do some good things. If we can go and play well and come home with four wins [against the Penguins], I think that will be a big victory for us. Because I do think that they’re a pretty good team, they’re no slouch.”
I asked Webber what it would take to take down Goliath ( Concordia) this year to finish on top and she confidently shared that she believes the team has all the right tools to do it, they just need to seize it and believe it too.
“Every game is going to be important. And I think that the girls need to go out and believe that [they’re] good enough. I think there are a lot of times you can be like ‘Maybe we can win, maybe we have a chance’. But these girls are like, ‘No, we’re gonna win.’ That’s a mindset that I can’t really teach, they have to experience and believe it themselves. I’ve learned that I can’t tell them that they should be confident. I can’t tell them, they should be passionate. I think this team has it all. So if they go out and they keep their heads up, even if there’s a bad day or a bad game, and believe that we can still do this, then I think that we will be very successful.”
While the team currently stands at a 2-4 record so far this year, rest assured in the fact that there is a long season ahead. Thursday night’s win was just the first sign of what this team is capable of. Kostrom dealt a shutout five innings while helping the team rack in eight runs to ultimately force a mercy rule less than an hour and a half into the game. The fun is just getting started.
As I have learned, the internal affairs of this program, from the rich focus on culture to the amount of sacrifice this group of seniors has shown to most importantly, the strong emphasis of faith intertwined through it all, reveals a sound foundation for a great season ahead.