SOUTH HEART - A few wins on the junior varsity level aside, Heart River softball's 2015 season was a challenging one, with more moral victories than on-paper success.
That was the inaugural season for the Cougars, who fielded an enthusiastic if inexperienced crew of players to kick off the new program that went 0-13.
Those Cougars were comprised of two seniors and a slew of junior high schoolers. By wins and losses, at least, it was a bit of a headache for head coach Kendra Schillo. But the attitude that season took on a patient tone. It was about the long-term process.
In year two last season, there was a good deal of improvement in both record and intangibles. A season of learning under their belt, they finished the year a respectable 5-8.
This season, though, Heart River has hit the fast forward button, and deep into this spring season, there is more softball to be played.
The Cougars, owners of a 10-6 overall record, took two of three in the Class B West Region Tournament a week ago to earn a trip to the state tournament in just year three of existence.
They'll face Kindred-Richland, the East Region first seed, at 11 a.m. CT on Thursday at Lyle "Trapper" Lawrence Field in Jamestown.
For Schillo, the quick ascension wasn't initially all that shocking because she witnessed all the hard work firsthand. But a step back put the big picture in perspective.
"I always knew what this team could do. They worked really hard and put in the time in the offseason, so it didn't really surprise me," said Schillo, who has coached the team for all three years. "But when you hear other people say, 'Wow, state in your third year, that's amazing,' you do realize it is a big deal, how cool it is."
The team is still a young one, with a roster made up of two seniors, two juniors, two sophomores, five freshmen, three eighth-graders and three seventh-graders.
But three years in, the interest level has caught up with the school, leaving a bunch of players with a genuine commitment and love for the game.
"We have a lot of girls whose passion is softball," said Margie Silbernagel, one of the two seniors who noted what a joy this year has been after that loss-heavy first season. "That has helped us get so far so soon."
The West Region tournament opened up with Heart River as the fourth seed against fifth-seeded Ray, the first time the Cougars had entered as the logical favorite.
Behind a strong game from freshman pitcher Abby Kessel, they won a tight one, 4-3, setting up a game with No. 1 seed Des Lacs-Burlington/Lewis and Clark. Against the odds, the Cougars jumped out to a 7-3 lead in that game. The Lakers ended up tying the game at seven, eventually winning 8-7 in nine innings, with Kessel again tossing the entire game.
The loss hurt, but it served as proof to Schillo that her team was ready for such a stage.
"That was a fun one against DLB," she said. "Didn't quite get it but we were confident and we played them hard. They weren't nervous."
The very next day, Kessel took the circle again and led the Cougars to an 8-5 victory, clinching their first trip to the state tournament. Though only a freshman, Kessel, like Silbernagel, is a third-year member of the team. She said the run for the Cougars has created quite the buzz.
"A lot of people were surprised. Our school doesn't really make it to state except for golf and track, none of the team sports," Kessel said. "So a lot of people were impressed we made it."
First sisters, now opponents
The game against Kindred-Richland will have some extra special circumstances for Greta Klinnert, Heart River's assistant coach.
A Kindred native, she threw the winning strikeout to take home a Class B state softball title in 2014 for the Vikings.
That season, coincidentally, was Kindred-Richland's third as a program as well.
Furthermore, Klinnert's sister, Theresa, is a pitcher for this year's team.
The two played a season together when Greta was a senior and Theresa was a freshman. Admittedly for both, it'll be a little strange.
"She said right away, 'It's going to be awkward,' because we went from being sisters to being teammates to being opponents," Greta said. "I told her that I'm always going to cheer for her, but when it comes down to it I'm going to cheer for my team."