When the Webster University and Fontbonne University softball teams met for an April 18 doubleheader, one of the most heated rivalries in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference was on full display.
Fontbonne has defeated Webster in the SLIAC tournament championship game the past two seasons. This year, both the Griffins and the Gorloks appear to be on a collision course once again. Fontbonne (24-10 overall) leads the SLIAC with a 13-1 record, while Webster (16-20 overall) is third at 10-4.
When the two teams faced off for the first time this season at ABC Ball Park in Saint Ann, each player had her own reasons for wanting to win. But Webster sophomore outfielder Danielle LaVenture’s reasons were a little more personal. LaVenture was going to play against the Fontbonne team she quit last season.
“I felt like I was going to vomit before the first game,” LaVenture said. “It’s hard because they aren’t a classy team. They always have something to say.”
For LaVenture, the Webster-Fontbonne rivalry began before she even graduated high school. Fontbonne coach Bill Rosner recruited LaVenture in the summer before her senior year at Nerinx Hall High School — located down the street from Webster.
Rosner and Brian Hoener, Fontbonne’s sports information director, declined to comment for this story.
The day after she committed to play at Fontbonne, LaVenture received an email from Webster coach Chris Eaton.
“I told him I signed with Fontbonne, and (he said) if anything happened to let him know,” LaVenture said.
LaVenture never played a game for the Griffins. She injured her back the second week of practice in February diving for a ball. She stopped playing softball because of her back, but she left Fontbonne for other reasons.
“When I quit in February, every single girl on the team stopped talking to me,” LaVenture said. “The coaches rarely talked to me anymore and rarely said hi to me when they would see me. That’s when I decided I couldn’t play there anymore. I didn’t like the coaches at all. The girls — I was just not fans of them. There were a couple girls I really liked, but for the most part, I just didn’t enjoy softball there.
“Fontbonne is a really small school. It’s only four buildings for academics. I just didn’t really like the people. It’s a school with multiple sports teams, so you put all athletes in a school like that — all the egos are going to go crazy. I just couldn’t do it because I’m not that kind of person. I don’t have a huge ego. I don’t like dealing with people who do.”
LaVenture let her back heal before contacting Eaton in May.
“I’ve seen her play before, and I thought she was a good player,” Eaton said. “I knew she’d be a good player for (Fontbonne), but I didn’t see her play for them. So, I was kind of curious as to why she wasn’t playing.”
In June, LaVenture toured Webster and met with Eaton.
“A couple weeks later I found out how much I’d be getting for scholarships and boom, it was done. I did not want to go back to Fontbonne at all,” LaVenture said.
LaVenture was then a part of Webster’s softball team — a team where she only knew one player, sophomore infielder Jessica Lewandowski.
“I played with her (Lewandowski) since I was 11 or 12,” LaVenture said. “She was one of my good friends growing up. We kind of lost touch during high school, and we started talking last year when I went to Fontbonne. She was like, ‘You should definitely contact coach.’ She was kind of the one who pushed me into going here.”
LaVenture said Webster’s team welcomed her with open arms.
“(Eaton) let us know we were going to have someone new on the team and that she had come from Fontbonne,” senior first baseman Hanna Brindisi said. “I know a lot of us were just really curious more as to why did she leave or why did she choose to come to Webster. It didn’t affect if I liked her or not.”
LaVenture said her first practice with Webster was the complete opposite of her first practice with Fontbonne. She said her Webster teammates instantly made her feel like part of the team.
“What I really liked about the team was they were all super friendly and they’re funny,” LaVenture said. “For the most part, everybody on this team came up to me and was talking to me at the first practice. It made me feel welcome. Coach is a quiet guy, but he’s super nice.”
LaVenture’s first transition with Webster was moving from third base, where she’s played her entire life, to the outfield.
“We’ve had some injuries,” Eaton said. “She’s stepped in right away and (has) been able to contribute. She’s not a natural outfielder — she’s worked hard to improve there every game.”
Early in the season, LaVenture was used only as a designated hitter. After struggling in the first four games in Mississippi, LaVenture thought she wouldn’t receive another opportunity to prove herself.
“After Mississippi, I thought I was done,” LaVenture said. “I thought I was going to ride the pine the rest of the season. In California, I finally came out. I’m so thankful my coach gave me a second chance to prove myself because he didn’t have to do that at all.”
While she proved herself to her Webster coaches and teammates, LaVenture also felt she needed to prove herself to Fontbonne in the teams’ doubleheader. LaVenture and the Gorloks did just that in the first game, as they defeated Fontbonne 6-4. It was the Griffins’ first SLIAC loss. Webster fell 5-1 in Game 2, though.
“I could not be any more proud of my team,” LaVenture said. “We played so well. Yeah, there’s room for improvement, but I couldn’t be happier giving them their first conference loss. They walked out there thinking, ‘Oh, this is just Webster. They already have some losses in conference.’ They were thinking it was going to be a piece of cake, but it’s not.”
While LaVenture didn’t contribute much in the loss, she shined in the victory. She went 2 for 4 and scored a run.
“I’m definitely very happy with my performance,” LaVenture said. “Every time I got on base, the (Fontbonne) coach had something to say to me. All I could do is smile and just play my game.
“He just kept saying how I only get lucky and how it’s an unlucky hit for the pitcher. It was basically just telling me I only have luck, which is fine. I guess he just recruited me for my luck last year.”
After starting the season as a role player, LaVenture’s has become one of the Gorloks’ offensive stars. She is third on the team in batting average (.352) and tied for second in RBIs (17).
“Dani has really brought the bat,” Brindisi said. “She never let where coach was playing her affect her. She’s been hitting awesome for us all year. She’s one of those people we can always count on when she’s up to bat.”
Splitting the doubleheader with Fontbonne proves Webster can compete with the two-time defending SLIAC champs. LaVenture believes Webster is the better team.
“I decided to play at Webster because I knew that Webster had more potential than Fontbonne,” LaVenture said. “I feel like Webster has more talent than Fontbonne does. It’s just we need to put all of that talent together — eliminate that one inning we’re notorious for each game that causes us to lose — and we will be a dominant force.
“It sucks we lost the second game, but we played them really well. We’ll see them in the conference tournament, so they should be ready for us.”
While defeating Fontbonne would make it sweeter for LaVenture, the difference of feeling a part of the team makes her transfer to Webster a success already.
“To be completely honest, I did not enjoy anything about Fontbonne,” LaVenture said. “I am so happy to be at Webster. I have a great group of friends who are also my teammates. I hang out with them every single day. I hang out with them on the weekends outside of softball. They’re just great. I couldn’t ask for a better team, honestly.”