Lions, Packers could meet in title game yet again

It’s no secret that West Fargo is the team to beat in the state softball tournament.

The Packers’ tally of consecutive state titles is at 16, with the last five as a North Dakota High School Activities Association-sanctioned sport.

The past two years, Bishop Ryan has trekked to West Fargo and fell 1-0 in the championship game. This season, the tournament is on the Lions’ home turf – South Hill Complex. West Fargo and Ryan own the top seeds from the East and West Regions, respectively, placing them on opposite sides of the Class A state tournament bracket. If seeds hold, they’re on a collision course for a state title rematch.

“Nobody likes to lose, especially if it’s in the championship, 1-0 both years in a row,” Ryan senior Anika Rovig said. “It kind of makes your stomach hurt a little bit. You learn a lot from a loss. I’m just hoping we can come out with a (state title) this year.”

The Lions (26-2) open with a first-round matchup against East Region No. 4 seed Shanley (17-6) at 6:30 p.m. today.

Ryan has won 25 straight games, not allowing an earned run over its past five contests. But coach Julie Stewart said the Lions aren’t peeking toward a potential rematch with the Packers on Saturday evening.

“Everybody knows West Fargo is the powerhouse,” Ryan coach Julie Stewart said. “But on any given day, any of these teams can pick off the next. And we know that. That’s why we don’t look past them.”

Ryan will rely on its two aces, junior Hannah Stewart and senior Brieann Backes. Stewart (12-2) owns a .087 ERA while Brieann Backes (14-0) isn’t far behind at 1.16. They each pitched a shutout en route to the West Region tournament title on Saturday.

“That is a luxury to have two solid pitchers,” Julie Stewart said. “We have been able to keep teams down in runs and that’s important going into the tournament and having that confidence that we have been consistent at that. You still have to hit the ball and you still have to score, but if we can play defense and pitch well, we should be fine.”

Hannah Stewart’s only two losses came in her first two outings, against Bismarck and in a 10-0, five-inning defeat to West Fargo.

Ryan’s first game came less than two weeks after it won the Class B state basketball tournament. Five starters play hoops in the winter.

“We have thought about them (West Fargo) throughout the season and it was nice to see them early and kind of get a feel for where we need to get,” Julie Stewart said. “We are somewhat seasonal because many of our kids play volleyball, basketball and softball, so I like to think that we’ve improved a lot as the season has gone on.”

As the Lions’ winning streak has expanded, their bats have heated up. All nine starters are batting .354 or better and have on-base percentages above .400. Rovig hopes it’s enough to solve West Fargo senior hurler Brittany Rheault, who has held Ryan scoreless in both title games.

“I think our hitting (needs to improve). Our defense was amazing the past two years,” Rovig said. “They didn’t score until the sixth or seventh inning both years. I think it’s just a matter of being prepared and being ready.”

The Packers (27-1) are unbeaten against opponents from North Dakota. They’ve only allowed 10 total runs to in-state teams, with Rheault carrying the load.

“She’s just got that confidence that you need as a pitcher,” Julie Stewart said. “I’ve seen her throw really good games. We kind of know her tendencies, but she’s very good at what she does.”

Both Stewart and West Fargo coach Pat Johnson know their teams have business to tend to first. But both also concede that the thought of a third straight meeting in the state championship is quite intriguing.

In the Magic City, it could bring even more drama than the past two.

“I think it’s going to be a hostile environment,” Johnson said. “I think you’re going to have a lot of fans up there and I don’t think they’ll be cheering for us.”