By Greg Bates
Times Press sports correspondent
Raven Vanden Langenberg stepped to the plate admittedly extremely nervous.
“I could feel myself shaking,” she said.
It was her first collegiate softball at-bat but the freshman from Seymour certainly didn’t swing the bat like it was her debut. The St. Cloud State University shortstop – who had never batted in the leadoff spot in her life — took a mighty hack. What happened surprised even herself. As the ball sailed over the left-center field fence for a home run, Vanden Langenberg rounded the bases and knew she had arrived – in a big way — on the college scene.
“All the confidence came to me and I played really well my first weekend,” Vanden Langenberg said. “I just kept it rolling.”
In the three games that Vanden Langenberg started on opening weekend on Feb. 2 and 3, she went 8-for-10 at the plate, reached base 10 of her 12 plate appearances, drove in six runs and scored seven runs.
Because of the phenomenal three-game stretch, Vanden Langenberg was named the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) Softball Player of the Week.
“I think she was anxious for her opportunity and she took advantage of it,” St. Cloud State softball coach Paula U’Ren said. “She’s so competitive. She’s grown up with a coach’s family, so she knows what it takes to compete.”
Said Vanden Langenberg: “I had no idea I was going to get as much playing time as I have now.”
The first seven games she started in her career, Vanden Langenberg – who graduated from Seymour in 2018 – was 17-for-24 (.708 average) with 13 RBI and 10 runs scored.
“I was seeing the ball really well,” Vanden Langenberg said. “In practice, we do a lot of hitting off the tees, so I could really see the ball and I would put it in different places. And all six of our pitchers’ live pitch to us, so that’s really nice too because you can see different pitches and different movements and stuff like that. It was just easier to see the ball.”
U’Ren said the first handful of games Vanden Langenberg wasn’t overthinking how she was doing, she was just playing.
“Then she saw maybe like, oh gosh, look what I’m doing. I’ve got to sustain this,” U’Ren said. “I just talked to her a little bit about, ‘Hey, it’s an amazing start and it’s probably not sustainable to hit .750. Just don’t put those expectations on yourself and do what you did when you started the year.’”
Even two months into her freshman season, Vanden Langenberg is hitting the ball really well but her gaudy numbers have started to level off. She has started 24 of 26 games played (through April 5) and is hitting .407 with 26 RBI, 20 runs scored and 12 extra-base hits.
“It’s a pretty high batting average, but we’re trying to get her be consistent with quality at-bats,” U’Ren said. “We’re trying not to focus on the number as much. We’re now getting into some NSIC games and we love you in that leadoff spot, just keep putting together quality at-bats and staying aggressive at the plate. It’s a great looking number, it’s a little gaudy for a first-year player but if she keeps doing what she’s been doing she’s going to be in a good spot at the end of the year.”
U’Ren said the reason for Vanden Langenberg’s drop in average is because she started gaining attention from opposing pitchers. As a freshman, teams didn’t know Vanden Langenberg’s tendencies as a hitter. Well, that is beginning to change.
“I told her, ‘Don’t change what you’re doing. Pitchers still have to pitch to you, you have to throw a strike across the plate. The game’s not going to change a whole lot, just go out and make sure you keep a strike a strike and a ball a ball and let’s be aggressive and get on the bases,’” U’Ren said.
The college game has certainly been a transition for Vanden Langenberg. Pitchers have higher velocity and are craftier at that level.
“In high school, I would only see fastpitch and rise and maybe when Paige (Weyer, her former Seymour pitcher) would throw a curve,” Vanden Langenberg said. “Even just our pitchers here, she’s got a two-seam, we’ve got a backdoor curve, a screwball, a drop ball – stuff that I’ve never even seen before. And it’s weird that I can be playing against girls that are 22, 23. In high school, I was a freshman at 14 playing against 18-year-olds but that four years can really make a difference.”
Vanden Langenberg has done a great job finding a way to reach base. She has a remarkable .519 on-base percentage.
U’Ren has utilized Vanden Langenberg in the leadoff position.
“I like someone who can come out and get a double right away instead of that traditional one base leadoff hitter,” U’Ren said. “She’s got some power. She has the opportunity to hit the ball and get a home run in one swing, and that’s a great way to start the game. Once she gets on the base, she’s extremely quick. She’s got a great sense for running the bases and is excellent at sliding. She’s scrappy and she’s got a lot of energy.”
Hitting leadoff is a change for Vanden Langenberg. Minus a few games where she hit second or fifth, she’s been the table-setter for her team’s offense.
“It’s different,” Vanden Langenberg said. “At Seymour with Karri (Vanden Langenberg), I was always third, fourth. Even with my summer ball league, I was always third, fourth, even fifth. Coming here was whole new ballgame.”
When Vanden Langenberg has gotten on base, she’s showed off her abilities. She’s swiped 14 bases in 15 attempts.
For how steady Vanden Langenberg has been at the plate, she’s also been a rock on defense. U’Ren likes Vanden Langenberg’s range, great arm strength and quick release at shortstop.
“I think she likes to show off her ability and she’s not afraid of making a mistake, and I think that’s really important on defense especially in the shortstop position,” U’Ren said.
To be starting at a key position in college as a freshman is quite a feat.
“For a freshman to start at any level is amazing,” U’Ren said. “The great thing about Division II is you can be a first-year student and come right out and compete, get on the field. A lot of times you go Division I and you’ve got to redshirt and you’ve got to wait behind somebody. I think that’s one reason why she looked at St. Cloud State is. I don’t want to wait behind anybody. I want to get out there and compete, and that’s what we recruited her for.”
After such a fast start to her collegiate career, Vanden Langenberg is hoping to keep up her strong play. The regular season is winding down quickly with the NSIC Tournament starting on May 2. Vanden Langenberg still has some individual goals to meet the rest of the season.
“I just want to keep going, keep pushing forward,” Vanden Langenberg said. “Keep doing the best I can, staying gritty, staying nasty and just play ball.”