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Season Preview: Packers aim for 13th straight softball state title

West Fargo's Brook Rheault pitches against Minot during a game last season at the Anderson Softball Complex in south Fargo. David Samson/The Pioneer1 / 2
West Fargo third baseman Carissa Becher grabs a ground ball during a game last season against Minot. David Samson/The Pioneer2 / 2

Through time, the number "13" has come to signify different things to different folks. Some see it as a sign of luck, be it good or bad. Others can't get past the image of a machete-wielding psychopath from a certain string of B horror flicks.

But for the West Fargo softball team, No. 13 could mean something completely different: the successful continuation of their North Dakota State-title winning streak.

For the past 12 years, the Packers have successfully defended their championship crown. Last year they did so with a close 7-6 win over Fargo North. Previously a club sport, last season was the first in which softball was officially sanctioned under the North Dakota High School Activities Association. West Fargo finished with a 22-5 record - its only in-state loss coming to Fargo Shanley.

There has been no question for more than a decade as to who is the team to beat in North Dakota. And with a stacked lineup at its disposal, West Fargo once again will have a target on its back from Day 1.

Long-time Packers coach Pat Johnson knows that every softball season is a chance to start fresh, however, and there are no guarantees until it gets under way.

"Realistically, this season is a whole different thing, and this group is a little different than the last group," said Johnson, who last season was named All-EDC and All-State coach of the year. "There is a little bit different leadership each time you have a different group."

The bulk of that leadership change came from the loss of three seniors: Jessica Woodbury, Aryelle Jones and Katie Fretheim.

"Katie was our long-ball hitter, so that might hurt us a bit," Johnson said.

In fact, the trio of veterans accounted for roughly 30 percent of the team's scoring. Fretheim, an outfielder, had a .375 batting average and struck out just twice in 32 at bats. Both Jones and Woodbury were All-EDC and All-State selections. Jones led the Packers in home runs with four, and finished third in RBIs with 23. Woodbury put up 25 RBIs, and led West Fargo in several categories, including runs (36), hits (38) and doubles (10).

Rest assured that, in those seniors' absences, other players will step up to fill the voids.

Good examples are senior team captains Allison Klug and Madison Anderson, and junior assistant captains Danielle Nelson and Kacie Johnson. The four have plenty of experience to lead the less-seasoned players, and will be critical to West Fargo's success.

"These kids might be a little bit quieter than last season," Coach Johnson said. "But each team has to have its own identity, and they will find theirs."

As far as sluggers go, the Packers will have their fair share. Outfielder Kacie Johnson, Pat Johnson's daughter, earned seats on both All-EDC and All-State teams last season after hitting a .444 batting average on 30 runs and 21 RBIs, and leading the Packers in triples with six. Junior first-baseman Nelson led West Fargo in RBIs with 28 while accumulating 25 runs on 32 hits and a team-leading six stolen bases.

Some fresh faces also will add to the Packers' punch, as sophomores Katie Woodbury, Brook Rheault and Sydney Greenlund are moving up from the junior varsity team. Rheault is expected to pitch, while Katie Woodbury - Jessica's sister - and Greenlund will be "all-around players," Coach Johnson said.

Any title-contending team isn't complete without a solid pitching corp. This year, the Packers will have that behind the trio of Kacie Johnson, Rheault and Kelsey Daul. Kacie Johnson is slated as first pitcher after putting up an earned runs average of just 1.57 behind a team-leading 71 strikeouts and an overall record of 11 wins and 3 losses.

The second-seeded pitcher is a tossup between Daul and Rheault. Junior Daul went 10-0 with an ERA of 2.78 in 63 innings, 37 strikeouts and a spot on the All-EDC team. Rheault didn't get as much exposure last year with just 21 innings pitches, but still finished with only 13 hits, 15 strikeouts and 1.33 ERA.

"We'll use them as we need them," Coach Johnson said.

The key this year will be consistency, he said: "Everyone has to perform their job, and they have to do it to the best of their abilities to help their team."

And with tough competition coming from across the state, the Packers can't sell any team short.

"They just have to relax and play to their ability" Coach Johnson said.