Third time’s the charm?
Since the sport’s inception 16 years ago, there has only been one North Dakota prep softball champion: West Fargo.
But you don’t have to remind Bishop Ryan of that. West Fargo has won the last two state title games via 1-0 wins over the Lions.
And they haven’t forgotten about it.
“It definitely sticks in our minds a lot,” junior pitcher Hannah Stewart said. “When we think about softball, that’s one of the things that pops up in our minds, that state championship that we’ve lost two years in a row.”
West Fargo senior hurler Brittany Rheault, the winning pitcher in each of the last two state championship games, returns for the Packers.
But the Lions have experience on their side this spring, too. Seven of their nine projected starters are seniors.
“When you have that sort of experience in the group, you hope that it carries over into us having a great season,” Ryan second-year coach Julie Stewart said. “Every time you return a group, you’re able to build and extend that group even further.
“That’s a fun thing to have as a coach, because you can pick up where you left off while incorporating the new kids coming up.”
The Lions finished 21-2 last year, with the only other loss coming against West Region foe Dickinson. Shortstop Sam Smith, who graduated in the spring, is the lone Ryan starter not returning to the team for the 2014 campaign.
With a wealth of veteran experience, the Lions seem poised for another strong season.
“It doesn’t really add pressure,” Hannah Stewart said. “I think it gives us more confidence. We’ve been a group that’s played together for the last 3-4 years. We know each other. We know each other’s strengths, how to cheer each other on. Having those seven seniors gives us a foundation for the entire season.”
Yet coaches and players alike are determined to keep a narrow focus, refusing to look too far into the future.
“I’m really not looking at a state championship right now,” said Julie Stewart, who has coached the Bishop Ryan girls basketball team to consecutive state titles. “There are a lot of teams that are returning a lot of good players, so at this point, we’re just trying to do things right. We’re just taking it one day at a time, one practice at a time, hoping to build a solid team that peaks at tournament time.”
The Lions certainly peaked at the right time last season. Winners of 19 straight prior to the state championship, Bishop Ryan skated through its first two state tournament games by a combined score of 10-2.
To accomplish so much without realizing the ultimate goal was a bitter pill to swallow for the Lions, but could it also be a positive for them going forward?
Some seem to think so.
“Playing in the state tournament is such a great experience in itself, and I think we learned a lot more losing the last two years than we would have if we won,” senior Anika Rovig said. “I think that we can use that to our advantage after playing in the state championship the last two years, knowing what it takes to get there.”
Said Hannah Stewart: “We’re hungry. We’re always hungry for wins. It would be awesome to win it for our seniors this year, because we have so many, and we’re such a close group. I think that what’s were shooting for: to get that final win for them, to have them end their final season at Bishop Ryan the right way.”
Joe Mellenbruch covers high school sports and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @Mellenbruch_MDN.