BEULAH - For the first time in three years, the Heart River girls softball team entered the second day of the West Region Tournament without needing to earn a spot at state. The team's fate had been sealed following a pair of wins 24 hours earlier.
With the pressure of qualifying for state off their shoulders, the Cougars shifted their attention toward accomplishing history, and with the help of a strong pitching performance and contributions throughout the lineup, history indeed was made.
In its third consecutive appearance at the big dance, Heart River will enter for the first time as West Region champions following a 12-1 triumph over Velva-Drake-Anamoose in five innings during the tournament title game on Tuesday, May 21, from the Wolf Softball Complex.
In three games during the West Region tournament, Heart River outscored its opponents by a 39-5 margin.
"It feels a little surreal, actually," Cougars head coach Kendra Schillo explained. "I think our girls came in loose. The last couple of years, we've had to play for a state tournament berth, and the fact that that was already done, you could just sense a looseness with the kids. They just came to play and this was going to be fun, and they had a lot of fun."
After junior starting pitcher Abby Kessel retired the side in the top of the first, the Cougars, the top seed from sub-region four, began to have their fun in the bottom half of the frame.
Senior infielder McKenzie Buckman led off by reaching on an error and later scored the game's opening run from third when the Aggies committed a fielding error as freshman infielder Taylar Fagerberg stole second base. Fagerberg touched the plate following another Aggies error on a ball hit off the bat of sophomore outfielder Jersey Filkowski.
Kessel and sophomore outfielder Quiahna Otero added back-to-back RBI base hits, stretching the Heart River advantage to 4-0 by the end of the first.
"I thought (the Cougars) came out ready to play. They hit the ball very well," Velva-Drake-Anamoose head coach Fred Mueller said, "We had a couple of opportunities early in the game to make a few plays to keep it a little closer than what it was, we just didn't make those plays. Overall, we've had a very good season. We're very happy with second in the region and excited to go down to state next weekend."
Responsible for five runs allowed, Aggies starting pitcher Olivia Passa was pulled after plunking the first two batters she faced in the second. She was relieved by her older sister, junior Emma Passa, who was tagged for seven runs.
"We have not hit (Olivia Passa) at all. ... Their pitcher and those Passa sisters are tough," Schillo said. "I think they were a little tired, honestly. I don't think they had their best stuff, and that allowed us to hit the ball harder than we usually do."
Otero's RBI double was the beginning of a dynamite day for the bottom of the Cougars' batting order, as the 7-8-9 hitters combined to reach base six times and drive in four runs. Batting ninth, freshman outfielder Briley Boltz may have had the best day of anyone in blue at the plate. Hit by a pitch to lead off the second, Boltz drove in Mattea Binstock with an RBI double in the third to give her squad a 6-1 cushion. One inning later, Boltz put two more runs on the scoreboard with an RBI single. Her hit put the 10-run rule in effect as the Cougars went on top 12-1 after the fourth.
"I've never hit well off Emma Passa," Boltz said. "I really wanted to get a hit off Emma Passa. She's a really good pitcher, and Olivia is, too, and I was really excited to hit the ball. We all were just excited."
Kessel relinquished her only run in the top of the second. Freshman flex player Halle Keller singled up the middle with one out. One hitter later, she scored from first after a double to deep center field from junior outfielder Aubry Mahoney. From there, the Cougar right-hander was in control, allowing just two hits and three baserunners the rest of the game.
Named to the All-Region team after the game, Kessel collected eight strikeouts during her outing.
"I always feel a lot more confident when we have a big lead. ... It takes some of the pressure off, so that's always good to work with," Kessel said.
"I wasn't on my best game today, but fastballs, working the corners, a couple of off-speeds thrown in there, those worked really good for us today."
It was the fourth time that Heart River has defeated Velva-Drake-Anamoose this season, however the previous four contests were decided by four runs or less.
The Cougars are the West's top seed and will have a date with Kindred-Richland in the Class B State Tournament quarterfinals on May 30 in Fargo.
"We definitely want to make the top four this year. We're the No. 1 seed, so we are set up well to do well at state," Kessel said. "We were really hoping for a top four ... well, a state championship would be awesome, but we're just hoping for a good end of the season. If we play like we have been, we can do it."
West Region Tournament Championship
Heart River 12, Velva-Drake-Anamoose 1 (F/5)
VDA 010 00 - 1 4 4
HR 414 3x - 12 7 1
VDA: Olivia Passa (1.0), Emma Passa (3.0) and Ryan Bodine. HR: Abby Kessel (5.0) and Mattea Binstock.
W-Kessel. L-O. Passa. HR-None.
Highlights: VDA: Halle Keller 1-2, R; Aubry Mahoney, 1-2, 2B, RBI; E. Passa 2-3. HR: Briley Boltz 2-2, 2B, 3 RBI, 2 R; Kessel 5 IP, 4 H, 0 BB, ER, 8 K, 2-3, RBI, 2 R
All West-Region team:
Beulah - Phoebe Garman
Bishop Ryan - Abbie McKay, Sealy Rovig
Des Lacs-Burlington - Brooklyn Benno, Brynley Benno, Erica Hermanson
Heart River - Taylar Fagerberg, Abby Kessel
Mohall-Lansford-Sherwood-Kenmare-Bowbells - Janie Savelkoul
Velva-Drake-Anamoose - Emma Passa, Olivia Passa
Washburn - Lexi Kulzer
Westhope-Newburg-Bottineau - Emmie Thompson
Senior Athlete of the Year - Phoebe Garman, Beulah
Coach of the Year - Peggy Pearson, Des Lacs-Burlington