Arguably the biggest Packer athletics question of the entire school year will be answered just over one week from now.
Can the West Fargo softball program win its 11th consecutive high school state championship? Packer coach Pat Johnson, the chief planner and architect of all 10 state titles, says the talent is there.
Although the team is on par with last season's record with a 15-6 overall record and 8-2 mark against in-state competition, the Packers aren't beating opponents senseless like last year. The scores are generally closer; the Packers aren't shutting down the competition as often with scores like 20-0, 12-0 and 10-0 that were seen last season. West Fargo beat Minot and Minot Ryan by one run each last week. Last season they were shutting them out or winning by nearly 10 runs or more.
Also, the Packers have been unable to beat Fargo North this season with their only two conference losses this year coming against the Spartans - including last week's 13-9 loss.
"I think we all have confidence. We just need to play hard the entire game and not just starting in the third inning," said junior pitcher Ally McCracken.
The coach and players point to their fielding and base running as liabilities. The team committed four errors apiece in one-run wins last week against Moorhead and Minot.
"We need to improve on our defense and get our mind a little more focused on the game. We need to make the routine plays," said junior right fielder Lindsey Levin, the team's leading hitter.
Junior Aryelle Jones, an offensive leader for the Packers again this season, said the Packers simply need to make things work against Fargo North, whom West Fargo will likely meet again at the state tournament.
"When we played North we had some bad luck and hadn't been playing on top of our game," said Jones. When we play them we need to put it all together."
Coach Q & A
So what do last season's scores and a lack of Packer blowouts mean to Johnson? The coach will tell you not a whole lot, since each team is different and each season is completely different than the one before it.
The following is a question and answer session with Johnson.
Question: Are you feeling confident heading into the upcoming post season that No. 11 is within reach?
Answer: "Realistically, we do. If we look at it, we beat Shanley, one of the top teams. Even though we got beat by North, we never quit and came back. If we have a little defense to go with everything, then we can be with them at the end. We're right there. We have to get everything together, and we'll go from there. Hopefully that's coming."
Q: How are things with last season's ace Andrea Sluke not pitching? [Sluke hasn't taken the mound in weeks due to injury]
A: Kacie Johnson is (helping out). She hasn't given up a lot of hits. She threw the Red River game and gave up one hit. She hasn't given up a lot. She's going to be to be the other pitcher. It's going to be her and McCracken unless Sluke gets well enough to come back, then we'll have a three-person rotation or use one as a closer and go from there. Gear for two pitchers, and if you get one back, then it's a bigger bonus."
Q: Does this team lack anything that any of the previous few teams that have won state had?
A: I think it's about the same. I don't know if we have as much softball knowledge as other years. We're young, and that kind of shows at times. We make young mistakes. If we can eliminate those...Even though other teams get hits, they shouldn't always be. We should make the play. That's the challenge. We'll have to start making the changes we need to make the plays. Against North we hit the ball well against one of the better pitchers this year. If we play like we can, we'll have a great chance to win every game. We can play every game with North.
The Packers are in a three-way race for first place in the state standings with Fargo North and Fargo Shanley. Results from Tuesday's game against the Deacons were not available before press time. There is no EDC tournament in North Dakota softball. Ten-time defending state champion West Fargo is scheduled to wrap up its regular season at Grand Forks Central today.
The state tournament starts May 29, in Minot.