They say it’s not how good you are, but how good you want to be.
On April 8, Bismarck High School’s softball team stepped off their bus and into Dickinson’s home diamond; everybody knew the competition would be close and history would unfold.
On the lonely pitcher's mound, Mataya Mortensen felt the world on her shoulders. As the sweat dripped through her hair onto the red dirt, the soreness of multiple innings pitched brought doubt. For a moment, it all seemed unclear if she could summit the challenge before her — the hot bats of a rallying Demons team...
Suddenly through the darkest, she heard it. The lovely sounds of her team cheering brought her back to the moment.
“I wouldn't want to trade it for the world,” she whispered to herself between heavy breaths, before launching a final strike to end the inning.
Mortensen is a multi-sport athlete for Dickinson High School and a leader on the teams she plays for. A volleyball, hockey and softball standout she has been involved in competitive sports almost her entire life. It’s not surprising as she comes from a family of athletes.
From childhood she recalls watching and imitating her older sister, Mariah, who would practice her pitch with their father in the backyard.
“My earliest memory (of softball) was my older sister, who was a pitcher. I looked up to both my sisters, but she would always pitch in the backyard to my dad and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I would alway be beside her, doing what she does and following the motions that she was doing,” Mortensen said. “When she would pitch... I would pitch. It was a good sister-to-sister moment that helped me realize that I really like to be in sports.”
Like an old VHS tape of memories, Mortensen fast forwarded through her youthful experiences in sports — pausing only to highlight the moments of adulation and heartbreak.
Looking back at her first softball game playing for the Coca-Cola team, at second base holding her glove over her face as her coach from the sidelines screamed for her to bring her glove down. Mortensen remembers yelling back that she could still see through all the holes in the glove.
She laughs now at the youthful stubbornness displayed then, that today helps guide her to dedicate herself fully to greatness.
The VHS tape speeds forward until suddenly she is on a basketball court, her family watching her as she takes a heavy fall. “If you are going to cry, don't cry on the court.” A phrase that has resonated with her since.
“You can come off and you can walk it off, but be strong headed. If someone sees that you are down, they are just going to pick on you more. So I try to keep my head up high and play for my teammates,” Mortensen said.
The VHS’s grainy film turns digital in her mind as the memory plays. It's now 2020 and she is on the ice, playing the last game of the year for the Dickinson Midgets hockey team.
Compelled to provide her senior sisters a final win, she paused the athletic highlight shortly after the end of the third period. There she points out a slip and highlights the moment she picked up a massive injury. No one would know just how bad until the next day.
“As soon as I fell and hurt myself, the clock went off and everybody was getting off the ice and I remember my hand was stinging and pulsing through my fingers and shoulder and my elbow was aching ... I skated it off and I sat down in the locker room next to Maggie Hanson and I said to her, ‘Please don't talk to me right now because if you talk to me I am going to cry.’ Mortenson recalled.
“I couldn't really talk because then I would really feel the pain,” she said. “But I didn’t want to tell anybody because it was the last game and I wanted to win. I kept it inside me and I finally told my parents the next day when I woke up. I could barely move it.”
Mortensen recalls her softball coach and family being there to support her. Another reason why she pushed through the pain. A quality of grit that continues to burn inside the junior to this day.
“(Coach Mickey) is the best coach I think I have ever encountered. She is always there for us, she stresses so much about cheering in practice and getting excited for our teammates and that is just so important,” Mortensen said. “She makes us want to play softball.”
When the Press spoke to head coach Amanda Mickey for the season preview, she was hopeful to have Mortensen back by the end of the season, but she didn't expect nor demand what Mortensen would deliver when she stepped onto the diamond against Bismarck’s demons.
“Grit, it's not in everybody — you got to want it,” Mickey said.
Mortensen went on to only allow two runs in the seven inning game while striking out eight players and garnering a run of her own on the offensive side.
“There were a lot of emotions going through my head, but as soon as I threw the first pitch and heard my teammates behind me make an awesome catch... I knew it was okay, that it was fine,” Mortensen said. “The win (against Bismarck High) wouldn't have happened without all of our awesome defensive plays and I don't think I could have pitched without hearing Kali Kubas and my whole team cheering me on and having my back. I played for them that day and it was a great game.”
To Mortensen, the numbing pain in her stiff arm was alleviated — if only temporarily — by the adoration of and from her team, her personal pride, her family’s support and the love of the game.
“I think it is just my mentality that I can't let my teammates down… The biggest thing for me is seeing my parent’s faces when I am out there and I know that they are proud. It makes my heart happy,” Mortensen said. “I couldn't imagine going home during softball season without dirt on my pants and sweat running down my face. It is just part of my life. I wouldn't want to trade it for the world.”
Dickinson will be playing Williston on April 29 and is set for 4 p.m.