Lions eager to get back to final

When Bishop Ryan sophomore Hannah Stewart said the West Fargo softball team has “won state forever,” she wasn’t far off.

The Packers have won state championships every year since the North Dakota High School Activities Association began sanctioning the sport in 2009. Including non-sanctioned tournaments before ’09, West Fargo has won 15 consecutive state titles.

But the Lions are confident they have the ability to dethrone the Packers, thanks in part to Ryan’s 1-0 extra-inning loss in the state final last season. The Lions and Packers enter this weekend’s tournament as the top seeds from their respective regions.

“We grew up a lot last year in that state tournament,” said Julie Stewart, Hannah’s mother and Ryan’s first-year head coach. “It wasn’t an unsatisfying feeling the way we played in that state championship game. We played hard, we made some plays.”

While the Lions are targeting West Fargo as the biggest barrier to a championship, they are also determined not to overlook their first-round opponent. The Lions are set to play East Region No. 4 seed Fargo North at 4:30 p.m. today, provided rain doesn’t cause rescheduling.

Hannah Stewart threw a no-hitter against North in last year’s state tournament, but isn’t expecting to be on cruise control today.

“We can’t get too ahead of ourselves because that never works out for us,” she said. “We’re just kind of focusing on Fargo North right now.”

If the Lions do meet the Packers in the state final, they may have to face West Fargo junior Brittany Rheault, the pitcher who shut out Ryan last season.

Julie Stewart said the Lions have a deeper batting order this year and feel better prepared after taking cuts against a couple of talented pitchers in practice. Former Packer Erin Loucks and Minot State University’s No. 2 pitcher this season, Tiffany Friesen, are both on Ryan’s coaching staff.

“We definitely have to adjust to the new pitchers, but (the assistant coaches) help us a lot,” said shortstop Sam Smith, Ryan’s only senior. “Last year we didn’t adjust to the fast speed.”

Hannah Stewart pitched all three games at state last season and likely will throw a majority of the innings again, though Julie Stewart said she also trusts junior Brieann Backes in the circle.

“Confidence” is the buzz word for the Lions as they prepare to contend for another state title. Some of that confidence stems from several of the same athletes winning the girls basketball championship in March, some comes from a pair of run-rule wins in the West Region tournament and some comes from the deep run at state last season and the competitive game with West Fargo.

“I don’t know if we expected to get that far,” Hannah Stewart said. “Now that we have that confidence of getting to state championship and playing well against a really good team, it kind of carries into this year and gives us some confidence for the early rounds.”