The softball team’s longstanding record of success wasn’t the only reason Rachel Penner opted for an education at Oklahoma City University.
Still, with eight NAIA national titles and a reputation as the best small-college program in the country, it made the decision that much easier for the 18-year-old pitcher from Kelowna.
“It’s a great to be going to a winner, a program that’s so strong and really helps its players develop,” said Penner, a graduate of Kelowna Christian School. “I’m honoured they want me, and I’m excited to become part of their team.”
Penner first began attracting the attention of U.S. colleges and universities when she attended a recruiting camp last October in Las Vegas.
After pondering as many as 25 different scholarship opportunities, Penner narrowed her list down to three serious candidates, then made personal visits to each campus—OCU, Menlo College in California, and Oregon’s Northwest Christian.
The Oklahoma school was a convincing winner in virtually every department.
“It was basically the whole package I liked,” said Penner, who will be enrolled in the business program at OCU. “I’ve been guaranteed I’ll get to pitch, I like their small roster, their pitching coach, and the campus is really nice.
“They have a good business program, too, so that was important,” she added.
Penner was also impressed by OCU’s athletic training facilities, which includes a private gym specifically for the softball team.
Penner has played the last 11 years in Kelowna’s minor softball system and been coached by her dad, Bernie, since Day 1.
“It’s a great opportunity for Rachel,” said Bernie Penner, coach of this year’s U18A midget Heat, “and a really good fit for her.”
Primarily a pitcher since her earliest days on the diamond, Penner has been a key figure in helping Kelowna Heat teams win three provincial gold medals over the years at the squirt, peewee and bantam levels.
OCU coach Phil McSpadden likes the Kelowna teenager’s potential and is excited to have her on board for the 2012-13 season.
“I’ve been impressed with her work ethic, her desire to play and everything else that goes with anyone who is willing to travel such a great distance to play this game,” said McSpadden who has led the Stars to the NAIA playoffs for 21 straight seasons. “Sometimes girls in our back yard might be more game-ready than some of the Canadian girls, but that doesn’t mean they’ll turn out to be a better player when you look at a four-year career. It’s where Rachel’s at as a person and a player that we like, and where I think that can take her down the road.”
Penner knows the step up from minor ball in B.C. to the collegiate level in the U.S. will be considerable. She’s been working with local velocity and sprint coach Brandt Fralick in an effort to improve her lower core strength and explosiveness, key assets for every pitcher.
Given time and experience, coach McSpadden believes Penner will mature into a valuable member of the Stars’ pitching staff.
“We think she will turn into more of a pitcher than a thrower as time goes along,” said McSpadden. “I’m sure she has more tools than that, but we’re looking for an up-baller type pitcher which we think she can be, and we’re hoping that will translate into an effective part of our staff.”
As for moving thousands of kilometres from home and being truly on her own for the first time, Penner isn’t the least bit apprehensive.
“I’m excited to start a new chapter of my life, being on my own, having that independence,” she said. “I might get a bit homesick, but there’s always Skype. I know I’ll be calling home a lot.
“There’s another Canadian on the team, too, so that should help as well.”
Penner will move to Oklahoma City in August.
Meanwhile, the OCU Stars fell just short of their ninth NAIA Div. 1 title this week, losing the national final to Shorter College from Georgia.