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Packers seeking ninth straight softball crown

This ones for the right-fielder.

Pat Johnson and the West Fargo softball program have staked their claim to eight straight North Dakota championships. Whats remarkable about that is that all eight have come in succession, including a win last year when everyone thought the Packer girls were ripe for the picking.

Now, Johnson returns his entire corps, including a group of 12 seniors and two juniors on his varsity squad. Its an experienced team that grew up fast in 2005, and is ready to take names out of the gate in 2006.

I think we were young when we started the year last year, especially with no seniors, but we were an older team by the time the State Tournament rolled around, Johnson said. We had to be. We had so many young starters that they had to pick things up quick.

That put pressure on last years captains, he said, including infielder Angie Young and outfielder Kelsi Wollitz. This year, the pressures off, as that experienced group of seniors will shoulder the load together.

I think it eases things a little bit, Johnson said. Our captains can go about their business without having that burden of trying to set an example for the other players; doing that rah-rah stuff. Thats going to let them go out and have a little bit more fun this year.

With eight straight titles, there is still pressure, of course. The Packers will have every team in North Dakota coming after them, and this year there are four additional teams to contend with. Minot High, Minot Bishop Ryan, Enderlin and Devils Lake have added teams to the ranks.

Johnson thinks he has the athletes to contend with all comers, and he might be right. The Packers return nearly every skill position in the field, and have even added depth in some areas with junior varsity players and newcomers to the program.

The only problem is that well be really young next year, Johnson said with a smile.

Young is back for the Packers, leading the squad from the hot corner at third base. Ali Edwards has made the transition to infield, and is one of the most fluid shortstops in the state. Erin Johnson and Jamie Odden platoon at second, with Odden getting starts when Johnson is on the mound. Odden moves to outfield when Johnson is relieved by senior Amber Jerger. At first, Ingrid Scantleberry and Ashley Walker are two seniors that are solid receivers.

Speaking of receivers, Karlyn Kivi suffered through a bit of a junior slump last year, but broke free at the right time, with clutch performances in the State Tournament. The catcher has been teamed with Erin Johnson for four seasons now, and coach Johnson thinks shes set for a solid season at the plate, as well as behind it.

Defensively, shes always been real solid. She just was a little bit tight at the plate last year, and you can see in the cage that shes not going to have that bugging her this season. I think shes looking very good, he said.

In the outfield, the Packers have unprecedented speed, Johnson said. Wollitz is joined by senior Sadie Mathison and newcomer junior Sara Dell, senior Amanda Hought and several others give that speed a lot of depth, as well.

Jerger and Erin Johnson are both clutch pitchers, none perhaps more so than Johnson, who has pitched in three state championship games to date and hopes to see a fourth. The senior is fresh off a third-straight appearance in the State Girls Hockey championship game, as well.

Im always ready for softball, though. Were (the seniors) excited. Its our year to go out on top, she said.

The Packers have a full slate of games against Minnesota competition to go with its extended schedule in North Dakota, coach Johnson said. With the established programs on the east side of the Red River, there are lessons to be learned. However, last years team showed a lot of success against Minnesota squads.

I think maybe we snuck up on some teams, he said. We arent going to sneak up on anyone this year. They know what we have coming back.

The Packers will begin their drive for nine on Friday, April 7, when they travel south on I-94 to Sauk Rapids, Minn. On April 8, the Packers will return to the St. Cloud Apollo tournament, where they went 3-0 and drubbed the host team, thanks to a no-hitter by Erin Johnson.

Then, the schedule gets tricky. West Fargo is slated to host Shanley on April 11, weather permitting. A serious warm-up would be needed soon to get that game, along with a contest against Red River two days later, on track.

It gets worse. There could also be flooding at the areas biggest softball complex, Mickelson Fields in north Fargo, a home away from home for the Packers, where Johnson has often held practices.

Right now, the weathers not really cooperating. Well see what happens in the next couple of weeks. One crisis at a time, I guess, Johnson said.