A decade of winning and the efforts of several dozen former Packers will be on the line starting today when the West Fargo softball team tries to win its 11th consecutive state championship.
The Packers begin play in the state tournament with a 14-8 overall record in a somewhat weather-shortened regular season. Last year's team extended the state title streak into double digits after a 19-8 regular season mark, and Packer coach Pat Johnson said that state title (No. 10) was the hardest to come by. It was won on the heels of a 31-0 season the year prior that ended with state championship No. 9.
This season's team, although a state title contender, is one of the more inexperienced, error-prone teams Johnson has led to the state tournament during the streak. It begs the question: Does this team, 11-3 against in-state teams, have what it takes to bring home yet another state title trophy?
Johnson admits the streak is on his mind, and he also points out he's the only who has been around for all those state titles. He said it not to brag, but to remind everyone that many of his players haven't been a part of the streak and need to focus on this season only.
"I think sometimes they think about it too much, and I just want them to think about it less and go out and play," said Johnson. "Those teams aren't you; you weren't a part of those teams. You didn't win 10 in a row; you didn't do that. Just play your game, and take care of business and good things will happen to you."
Nevertheless, some West Fargo players know that they stand between keeping the state title trophy at the high school and ending a streak that began when many were still in preschool. If the Packers don't win it all, it would take until 2018 for them to match the winning streak, provided they start with a state title next spring.
"It is pressure," said senior third baseman Maggi Nicholls. "But the main thing on our mind is to play our game and do as well as we know we can. We have the ability to do it."
The Packers head into state on a mini-slump (by their standards), having lost two of their last five games against North Dakota teams - including contests against rivals Fargo North and Fargo Shanley in the last two weeks. Both are teams West Fargo will surely see again in the state tourney.
West Fargo did, however, end its regular season on a solid note - with a 5-1, blunder-free win over Grand Forks Central. The Packers had committed 10 errors in their previous four games.
"I think we just had a couple of bad games," said freshman pitcher/centerfielder Kacie Johnson. "We've been working pretty hard in practice. We've made a ton of errors that have helped the other teams score unearned runs. We have to correct those things, and we'll be off to a good start going into state."
Coach Johnson said earlier in the week that he was unsure who will start today against their state tournament first round opponent that was undetermined at press time. Kacie, 5-0 on the year, is on a hot streak of sorts, having struck out seven batters against the Knights last Thursday while giving up only one run. Junior Ally McCracken (6-5) was tagged with the recent losses against the Spartans and Deacons but has pitched more than anyone this season. Sophomore Andrea Sluke (3-3) is returning from injury and will likely not be available to pitch in the state tournament.
"It depends on who we play and whether or not the pitcher has faced them before," said Coach Johnson. "And it depends on what my gut feeling is and how practice goes and what the weather is in Minot. It depends on a lot of things."
Last season's team found itself in much the same situation as this year's Packers. West Fargo lost twice to Fargo Shanley during the regular season and once to Fargo North, and was considered underdogs by some going into the state tournament despite the streak.
"The only thing we want to think about is just going out and winning, whether it's a regular season game or the state championship," said Nicholls. "All we do is focus on doing our best. We know what we have to do and how to get the job done."
The coach said he can live with the outcome if the 11th consecutive state championship isn't in the cards this weekend.
"It means a lot to the girls (that have played), and it means a lot to the kids (that are playing now," he said. "I'm happy either way, as long as they come out and play and give me what they have and play their best. If they win it, then - great - we have another. If they don't, it's not the end of the world. We'll go back to the drawing board and do it again."