In the span of three short seasons, the Heart River girls softball team have gone from toiling upstart to state contender.

After struggling to a winless season in their debut campaign in 2015, the Cougars qualified for the 2017 Class B state tournament, winning their final two games to capture a fifth place.

"When we started out [last year], we made team goals and our team goals were to beat a couple of the teams that we hadn't beaten before in the previous two years," Heart River head coach Kendra Schillo said looking back. "As we went along, we were not only competitive but beating some of those teams and all of the sudden, the state tournament looked like a possibility. ... We really made a jump from our second to our third year, it really clicked for a lot of our girls."

With the start of softball season on the horizon, Heart River returns most of its tournament squad as the girls walk into uncharted territory, entering the season among the favorites.

The Cougars are ranked seventh in the Class B preseason coaches poll.

Preparation for the 2018 campaign got underway shortly after last year ended. According to Schillo, many of the players got more reps on the field by venturing to Dickinson and joining travel teams last summer.

"The kids have just all really worked hard in the offseason to get better," Schillo said. "There's a lot of hype and it doesn't mean anything until you actually are playing the games."

The Cougars will be aided by the newly-introduced sub-regions this season. They will now play out of the seven-team Southwest sub-region, cutting down on long road trips.

While travel isn't quite the obstacle it once was, Heart River's biggest hurdle will be replacing the leadership void of Cougar graduates Margie Silbernagel and Rylann Olson, a pair of players who patrolled the right side of the infield.

"The difficult part for me as a coach is to replace that senior leadership," Schillo said. "With Rylann Olson and Margie Silbernagel, they just led by example. They were just amazing leaders. So it will be interesting as a coach to see who will step up. We have some pretty strong juniors who have now become seniors. I am looking to them to take the lead, but those are big shoes that we have to replace."

Two returning seniors that Schillo intends to lean on are Kaylee Binstock roaming center field and Alexis Urias at shortstop. Coming off of a five-hit performance in the state tournament, freshmen Caylee Wilke will play first base while eighth-grader Gracie Kahl will be at second base.

Sophomore Mattea Binstock is a veteran of the program playing behind the plate. Her batterymate on the mound is sophomore Abby Kessel, who is coming off of a season where she was selected to the Class B All-State team.

"I think her number one strength is her velocity. She is just able to pitch with a velocity that most Class B teams don't see," Schillo said of Kessel. "Second of all, she's all about softball all the time....She wants to do well and she's very determined. She's just a sophomore, but she's been our starting pitcher for four years."