The Dickinson High girls softball team has qualified for the Class A state softball tournament in each of the last seven years. With the team coming off an appearance in last season's state title game, there was little reason to believe why the Midgets couldn't punch their ticket to the tournament for an eighth straight time.
However, despite the lofty, yet realistic expectations levied on the squad, Dickinson was slow and sluggish out of the gate in its 2019 campaign. After a season-opening win against Minot on March 29, the team was projected as one of the favorites coming out of the West Region, but dropped five out of its next six games.
Arguably, the Midgets' low point came during a doubleheader on the road against Bismarck High, the defending WDA champions. Lasting only five frames, Dickinson was hammered by a 13-1 margin in game one before jumping out to a 6-0 lead in game two.
Leading 7-6 in the bottom of the seventh inning, Dickinson needed one out to end the game, but an error and two walked pushed in the tying run. In extra innings, the team came up empty despite having runners on second and third base with just one out. The Midgets, again, needed one out to finish the frame, but back-to-back errors gave the victory to the Demons.
"Oh yeah, I don't think anyone could really forget that," senior outfielder Kennedy Kuntz said of the bus ride home from Bismarck. "We took that game and said, 'That's not us.' Now, we've just taken things one game at a time, one pitch at a time. It's basically 'our new season,' that's what we call it."
In the two weeks since the Demons debacle, Dickinson has started its 'new season' on a roll. Beginning with a tripleheader on April 13, the Midgets defeated Grand Forks Central twice and earned a victory of Grand Forks Red River, taking the three contests by a combined margin of 47-0. Three days later, in a doubleheader against Williston, the Midgets finally got their first conference wins of the season, outscoring the Coyotes 27-0 in two games. Noteworthy during that five game stretch is that the team did not commit a single error.
"They've just got to realize that you can't do that all the time and come away with wins every single time," Dickinson High head coach Amanda Mickey said. "It's something that we have to clean up completely. I know that they're going to happen, but it's just one of those things. That's what we need to personally work on: errors, mental errors and physical errors."
Errors were the most tangible and glaring issue plaguing the Midgets in the early stretch of the season. In the first eight games, Dickinson committed 30 errors; that's compared to 50 errors through 28 games in 2018.
The opponents were taking advantage of the Midgets missteps, as 30 of the 74 runs scored against them were unearned. Last season, only 35 of the opponent's 110 runs were unearned. Lastly, in the 31 frames in which the opponent has touched home plate, a Midgets' error, wild pitch, or passed ball either preceded or directly resulted in runs during 19 of those frames.
"I think the big thing that has changed from the beginning of our season to now is definitely our mental toughness, for sure," Kuntz said. "I think at the beginning of the season, we weren't mentally there. We could make the plays, but we'd make mental mistakes, and that's what's really got at us. Now, it's different."
That mental toughness was on display during the team's last outing on April 23 at home in a doubleheader against Mandan. In each contest, Dickinson trailed early and did not capture its first lead until the bottom of the fifth. While they committed a pair of errors against the Braves, breaking their streak of clean games, the Midgets ride a seven-game winning streak into the second half of the season and are starting to look like their old selves.
"What is impressing me the most is like (Tuesday), we came back twice from being behind and came back with wins. We chipped away and didn't let it get the best of us," Mickey said after the two-game sweep. "The problem was, we'd get an error and it would snowball from there. Today, we got an error and let it go, cleaned it up, moved on and made those plays."