Four years have passed since the Heart River girls softball program opened its inaugural season, and in what feels like the blink of an eye, its fortunes most certainly have changed.
Fielding an inexperienced team in 2015, the Cougars went winless in their first season. There was no place to go but up, and from there, the team went from Class B doormat to a fifth-place finish at state in two years
Heart River continued its ascent in 2018, going undefeated in the regular season before wrapping up its second straight state appearance with a seventh-place finish.
Now entering their fifth season as a program, the Cougars desired destination couldn't be clearer.
"I think there's a determination that I haven't seen, necessarily. I mean, our teams have always been determined, but a determination that we're going back to state, that's our goal," said Heart River head coach Kendra Schillo, who was the 2018 Class B Coach of the Year. "The last couple of years, maybe we'd hope we'd get to state, but there's a feeling of that's where we want to be and we're going to do what we need to do to get back there."
Schillo says the team has put that determination into action, as the players have looked to stay longer at practice flagging down extra fly balls and getting in extra conditioning.
The two players leading the charge have been batterymates since the start of the program's existence. Junior pitcher Abby Kessel and junior catcher Mattea Binstock represent the team's strength, according to Schillo. Binstock was one of three Cougars selected to the Southwest All-Region team and Kessel earned a spot on the All-State team for the second year in a row last season.
"That kind of leadership and experience, you just can't replicate," Schillo said of Kessel and Binstock. "They have set the tone and the younger girls have sort of fallen in step. There's a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of excitement for us, only being a couple weeks (into the season)."
On the mound, Kessel has an overpowering arm, but she felt like she needed to add more to her repertoire. Over the last three months of the offseason, she'd go into the gym a couple of times every week, working on developing her changeup, screwball, curveball, and riseball with her father.
"I've been wanting to try different pitches and mix it up instead of just throwing fastballs all the time, like last year," Kessel said. "They've been getting a lot better. The more we practice, the better it gets I think. There's a couple (of pitches) that still need some adjustments, but otherwise, it's going pretty good."
Many of their main cards are back in the fold, the Cougars have some obstacles they will have to overcome.
Starting shortstop Alexis Urias and center fielder Kaylee Binstock have graduated while sophomore Caylee Wilke relinquished her starting position at first base to participate in track and field. Schillo hasn't finalized the team's defense and still has some questions regarding her outfield, but intends to use a talented crop of freshmen to make up for some of the losses.
Meg Silbernagel, who started at third as an eighth-grader last year, will move over to short. Fellow freshmen Gracie Kahl and Briley Boltz will see increased time in the infield, along with Taylar Fagerberg, who will move from the squad's designated hitter slot to first base. Even with a new position to learn, with her aggressive approach at the plate, Fagerberg is expected to be a key cog in Heart River's hitting attack.
"I'm going to do my best to hit as many people as I can in. I'm just going up to the plate thinking, 'I'm going to hit this one, and people are going to score,'" Fagerberg said. "Usually, the first pitch is a strike, so I do like to swing on that first pitch."
Juxtaposed to the team's youth is Heart River's lone senior, outfielder McKenzie Buckman. Starting her softball career during her sophomore season, she missed the majority of her junior year with a broken thumb.
"Last year, it was hard as a junior seeing how far we went, but as an older upperclassman, it was really good to see the underclassmen step up, take my position, and see how far we can go as a team, making it to state," Buckman said. "This year, I'm really hoping that we can get back."
The path to state will be slightly different this season, as the landscape of the Southwest sub-region has changed. Watford City, which the Cougars defeated in the inaugural Southwest Sub-Regional Championship game, has moved up to Class A. Still, conference competition remains stiff as Schillo believes many of the teams that suffered a number of losses have gotten older and have only improved, similar to the Cougars' progression.
Velva, Washburn, and Wilton-Wing in the sub-region, along with Bishop Ryan and Des-Lacs Burlington-Lewis & Clark in the region, are the toughest teams Heart River may face.
"I think the sub-region is going to be really, really competitive ... Going to state is not a foregone conclusion for us," Schillo said. "We're going to have to earn every single thing that we work for."