The feeling of falling one run short of a state championship does not burn nearly as much for coach Julie Stewart and five members of the Bishop Ryan softball team.
The Lions lost 1-0 to West Fargo in last year’s final, but a handful of returning players are coming off a Class B state championship in basketball under the guidance of Stewart.
She is now tasked with leading another star-studded team to a title. Ryan opens the season on Tuesday at Bismarck High.
Stewart, an assistant under Fred Mueller last season, is taking over as head coach following the resignation of the man who built the program. All the multi-sport, state-tournament experience on the roster bodes well for a coaching staff in transition.
“(The players are) very competitive and that transfers from sport to sport,” Stewart said. “They want to compete, they want to do well and they also understand it doesn’t just happen. You have to prepare yourself and bring intensity, mental toughness every practice, every game.”
Stewart’s daughter, sophomore Hannah, will lead the team as its top hitter and pitcher and is one of three all-state returners.
Hannah belted nine home runs as a freshman and was 18-3 on the mound with nearly 170 strikeouts. The 6-foot-2 hurler threw a no-hitter in the state semifinal game.
“We were really close as a team and we knew how to deal with each other and know how a championship team is supposed to be,” said Hannah, who was the state basketball tournament MVP and first-team all-state selection. “Since we’ve won one (in basketball) it’s probably gonna help carry into the softball part too.”
Freshman outfielder Sheyenne Schmidt and junior infielders Anika Rovig, Maddie Lipp and Macy Christianson also played on the basketball team.
The softball team’s lone senior, shortstop Sam Smith, gives the Lions a second all-state slugger near the top of the order. Smith came on strong toward the end of the 2012 season and finished with four home runs.
“I’m very confident, we’re gonna come out just as strong,” Smith said. “We have Hannah Stewart at the plate and almost all of our infielders back.”
The Lions’ biggest loss came with the graduation of all-state second baseman and Williston State College freshman Hannah Kramer. Reliable in the field and at the plate, Kramer left a void in the infield and at the top of the order. Christianson and junior McKenzie Ebert are competing to start at second. With snow still covering outdoor facilities throughout the city, Julie Stewart is waiting to finalize the roster until she sees her team on the field.
“One thing we did so well at state was our defense,” Stewart said. “Our outfielders and infielders, we just really played well in that championship game. If we put the standards and expectations high from the get-go, hopefully we’ll be able to just relax and be confident.”
Junior pitcher Brieann Backes gained experience with the absence of injured senior Lexi Klein last year and will be the team’s second option behind Hannah Stewart.
Lipp, the team’s third all-state returner, is back behind the plate. The vocal leader was a good fit in 2012 and proved to be one of the squad’s most consistent players.
“She is solid,” Julie Stewart said. “She continues to expand because she’s out there attending camps and clinics and learning. She loves the sport, wants to get better and she’s a kid that will work to get better.”
The state’s coaches picked defending champion West Fargo ahead of Ryan as the preseason favorite. Ryan was picked to repeat as West Region champion. Stewart listed both Bismarck public schools, Minot High and Dickinson as West Region contenders.
Mueller was 89-39 through the first four seasons of sanctioned softball and told the Daily News in July that he planned to step down following the team’s first appearance in the state championship game.
“I just think it’s time,” Mueller said in July. “I really want to leave the cupboard full. The future is great up there for he or she, whoever the next coach is.”