'It could be anybody': Midgets softball preps for ‘wide open’ Class A season
The Dickinson High girls softball team had very few blemishes throughout its 2018 campaign. Dropping only two games en route to their third state championship game in four years, the Midgets earned four regular-season victories over West Region opponent Minot by a combined margin of 38-14.
The two teams met for a fifth time last year, however, that meeting came on the state's biggest stage. After taking an early lead, Dickinson relinquished four runs in the top of the third inning of the state title game. Down by two and running out of outs, the Midgets loaded the bases in the bottom of the sixth, but couldn't claw closer. With a 4-2 triumph, the Majettes became the first state champion to hail out of the Western Dakota Association.
For everyone involved in the Midgets program, there's no question that falling short stung well past last June. The 2019 season provides a chance to wipe out those nightmares, and poetically, the team begins the year against a familiar foe.
On Friday, March 29, Dickinson opens its season on the road against Minot in non-conference action. While Midgets head coach Amanda Mickey says her players aren't fixated on revenge, they are excited to see the Majettes again.
"We got that sour taste in our mouth still. We haven't really talked about wanting to kick their butt because they beat us in the state championship," Mickey said. "(Minot) did a great job, they pulled together at the end and did all the little things right. We had a couple of mistakes, but it is going to be fun to start off with them because of the last game. ... We want to play a good game against them. I have a lot of respect (for Majettes head coach) Gerard Cederstrom over there. We're good friends, we talk a lot, he's a good coach, and it's going to be a good, clean, fun game."
Last season, Dickinson was voted as the top team a WDA preseason coaches poll. The prognosticators were validated as the Midgets rode the wave of a 23-game winning streak. This year's preseason poll has yet to be released, but the orange and black are expected to be in title contention again. Nonetheless, Mickey doesn't put stock into potential hype.
"We are definitely ignoring any polls of any sort. Our goal is to beat Minot cause they are first on our list," Mickey said. "If you doing the little things right and are taking the baby steps, and only seeing the team that you are playing in front of you, it'll eventually lead to the title. ... But we're totally going to be ignoring all of that, it means nothing to us. We haven't proven anything yet."
The player that may need to prove herself the most is freshman pitcher Mataya Mortensen. After throwing 65 innings as an eighth-grader last year, she slides into the No. 1 slot on the mound after the graduation of top pitcher Amber Sickler.
Mortensen had a strong debut season with the Midgets, amassing a 4-0 record in 11 starts. In her 15 appearances, the freshman had a 2.80 ERA and allowing batters to hit .245.
"I think I feel more comfortable, and since I know how my defense works, I'm not scared to get a ball hit off me because I know that my defense has my back," Mortensen said.
"I do feel a little pressure because it's kind of scary since I'm just a freshman, but I know that I have a good team. I know that they will have my back."
Appearing in three games last year, sophomore pitcher Abbey Kubas will fill the role as No. 2 starter. If either pitcher struggles on a given day, Dickinson knows its offense can hit them back into any game. Averaging a state-high 12 runs per game last year, the Midgets return seven players who had at least 25 hits, 18 runs scored and 14 RBIs.
"It helps to have a great team that can hit as well, and that's a nice thing because Abbey and Mataya know that their team can hit off of last year because we're just going to carry that right over to this year," Mickey said.
The team isn't without their losses at the plate. Most notably, the team will have to adjust without the leadership of Jordie McNeilly. Selected as the Class A Senior Athlete of the Year and the Gatorade Player of the Year in North Dakota, McNeilly leaves a massive void to fill as the catcher is in her first year at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
Arguably the team's best hitter last year, freshman Taya Hopfauf will move from third base to behind the dish. As an eighth-grader, Hopfauf put up monster numbers, batting .447 with a team-high nine home runs, 58 RBIs and .845 slugging percentage. Clubbing her way to similar stats in 2019 will be a daunting task, as the freshman will play this season after tearing her labrum during the basketball season. The Midgets will be cautious with Hopfauf and monitor her pain throughout the season, but if the team senses any discomfort, senior outfielder Kennedy Kuntz will be called onto catch.
"It's a lot different. I haven't caught since the seventh or eighth grade," Kuntz said. "It's different having to get back into it. There's a lot of different things that I didn't know then that I'm learning now from coach Claudia (Torres) and even Taya is teaching me. It's different for sure, and they are helping me a lot to get better."
Prior to Minot's crowning achievement, the state was run by West Fargo. The Packers held a stranglehold on the sport, collecting 20 straight Class A titles before falling to Bismarck Century in the state quarterfinals last year. The dominant program from out east is aiming to get to championship form, but according to Mickey, the days of West Fargo walking to another title may be a thing of the past.
"Personally, I think it's wide open. Softball is just getting so much better in the state of North Dakota, and you can tell because West Fargo isn't coming out on top anymore. Teams finally have gotten a decade under their belt and they are becoming better, they're more successful, they understood the game of softball and they have more confidence on top of that. There's actually a lot of new coaches this year, but most of them are in Class B. As far as Class A, they're able to create their teams, their programs, their culture, and that's where a lot of that success comes from. Just having that backbone of the program, that's why things are moving along, but it's wide open. It could be anybody, it really can be."