We should be hearing the crack of the bat, the fastball slapping the catcher’s mitt, and the cheers from both the fans and inside the dugout. Instead, we continue to wait to see if we’ll have a high school baseball and softball season in North Dakota. The spring sports season was suspended before practices could even begin.
My heart goes out to all the student-athletes, coaches, families and fans that are being affected by this. I especially feel for the senior class that has most likely been robbed of their final spring season of high school athletics. Feel free to pause as you’re reading this and give them a round of applause.
-------WAITS FOR CLAPS AND CHEERS------
Alright, now to business. Although the season may never happen, I'm still spotlighting my top five teams for the 2020 ND high school baseball and softball seasons! Also, keep an eye out for some more coverage from the high school diamond on social media throughout May. I know programs across the state have great stories to share and we’d like to play a role in making that happen. For now, enjoy the rankings and insight!
Class A Baseball
The Patriots are a no-brainer pick at number one. Last year, Kent Schweigert’s program became the first team in state history to win back-to-back Class A state baseball titles and they would be the favorites in a 2020 season. Their top three pitchers return, now seniors, including Cade Feeney, Connor Hanson and Skyler Riedinger – each with an ERA under 1.00 in 2019.
Feeney was named Gatorade Player of the Year last season after a marvelous junior campaign. The NDSU baseball-commit batted .375 with two home runs and 27 RBI while playing shortstop and pitcher. On the mound, Feeney tossed 84 strikeouts, allowing only four runs all season in 48 innings.
It’s a star-studded group that was hoping to make history with a 3-peat.
The Eagles had trouble finding their footing in a short season last spring. They had the talent but stumbled in the postseason falling to Devils Lake and Grand Forks Central in the EDC tournament. This year’s group was determined to get the Eagles back into the state tournament to flirt with a state title. Seniors Cole Hage (Columbia University-commit) and Zach Kluvers (NDSU-commit) are the top impact players for Hans Anderson’s group. Hage and Kluvers were part of that unreal summer for Fargo Post 2 last year that finished with a trip to the American Legion World Series championship game. Seven seniors were slated to return for the Eagles, and I think that experience mixed with the talent would’ve boded well for this squad in 2020.
The Mustangs had a lot to be proud of in 2019. They took the 3-seed into the EDC Tournament and emerged as the conference tournament champion by defeating Fargo North 12-6. At state, Sheyenne fell to Minot in the opening game 6-4 in eight innings. They followed that up with a 7-6 extra-inning win over Dickinson and then a 7-6 defeat at the hands of Williston.
The Mustangs have qualified for state three times in their past four seasons. It’s evident that they’re always going to be in the mix and that’s a credit to the youth programs in West Fargo. I’m interested to see how the baseball success of the West Fargo programs continue as the third varsity program prepares to launch at West Fargo Horace in the next few years. Overall, Ryan Bodell has a good mix of talent on this 2020 squad. They graduated six seniors off last year’s team but returned quite a bit of starting experience. Catcher Drew Clouse is the lone senior, but Lance Oster, Alex Urlaub and Abe Hestdalen are also familiar names for Mustang fans. Urlaub hit .385 BA with nine doubles and 22 RBI last season, plus he’s also one of the best defensive shortstops in the state. Pitching is where the Mustangs needed some younger players to step up, but I think they had a good shot to be in the hunt for the EDC title.
The defending WDA regular season and tournament champions make a strong contender case, as well. The Coyotes placed a WDA-leading five players on the All-WDA team a season ago and two of those players return as seniors this season in standouts Garret Hill and Camdin Miller. Players like Denver Sheets and Charlie Whitlock also came up clutch on several occasions last spring.
Aaron Finders’ team averaged a state-leading 8.6 runs per game last season and I feel like this year’s group has the same potential to put up runs. It’s a fundamentally sound group that would be fun to watch, especially in matchups against fellow-WDA front runner Bismarck Century.
5. West Fargo
I wrote about the strength of West Fargo youth baseball above and here’s more evidence. The Packers check-in at number five for me after graduating only four seniors off last year’s squad that finished 17-11 with a fourth-place finish at state.
Junior shortstop/pitcher Brayden Jacobson is one of the top players in the state already. He was one of the top pitchers and hitters in the EDC as a sophomore last spring and was expected to lead the way for Brett Peterson’s team in 2020. Seniors Dustin Mertz and Anthony Villanueva were also returning as top contributors for the Packer lineup that erupted for double-digit runs twice in the postseason last year.
Class B Baseball
The Cardinals team is no stranger to winning. A lot of the faces that you’ll see on the baseball diamond have also played a role in Langdon-E-M winning back-to-back state football titles and that includes Head Coach Josh Krivarchka. This is baseball though. The Cardinals haven’t been to state since 2006 before Edmore and Munich were even part of the co-op.
So, how in the heck do I have them ranked as my preseason favorite then? Simple.
I think they were the second or third best team in the state last year behind eventual state champ Park River-F-L, the team that’s ended their season three consecutive years in the region championship. The Aggies have been the roadblock for the Cardinals lately, winning three consecutive state championships to go with that trio of region titles. I think the combination of what the Aggies graduated last year and what the Cardinals return gives Langdon-E-M the edge to be ranked number one. We could only wish for these teams to square off again for the region title because they’ve played some memorable games. Langdon-E-M returns eight of nine starters from last year’s squad that finished 18-10 overall. The Romfo twins, Grant and Simon, do damage on the mound and at the plate for the Cardinals. Cooper Zimmer and Brennan Kitchin are a few of the other talents on this team loaded with athleticism. Coach Krivarchka told me he feels confident in his pitching and defense. So, if his offense started to click, I’m not sure who’d be able to stop them from winning it all. Could the Aggies?
Four straight trips to the state championship, but no titles since 2016. Langdon-Edmore-Munich has lost three straight region titles to Park River-F-L, but the feeling for Thompson is probably more heartbreaking considering they’ve lost three consecutive state championship games to the Aggies including last year’s 9-8 contest that took an extra inning to finish. The Tommies graduated quite a bit of talent off last year’s team including Marcus Hughes, Cadyn Schwabe, Josh Sem, Nick Reck and Hayden Overby. But, seniors Clay Odenbach and Jacob Dick were set to anchor the lineup and the pitching rotation giving Brady Schwab’s team a great chance to be right back in the hunt this spring. Odenbach boasted an ERA under 1.00 last season and was a strikeout machine. Dick and Odenbach also drove in more than 20 runs each last season. The big key for the Tommies would’ve been having younger players step up, something the program has had a good track record of in the past.
3. Shiloh Christian
The Skyhawks are another team that has had plenty of success in recent years with two state appearances in the last three seasons. All three of their games at state last year were decided by one run with the lone loss coming to eventual state champ PR-F-L in the state semifinal round 1-0.
The Skyhawks return first-team all-state selection Jaden Mitzel, who was one of the team’s top pitchers a year ago with his strong left-handed delivery. Mitzel also hit over .500 at the plate with around 30 runs batted in. Josh Lardy, Dylan Fredrickson and Noah Welch were also poised to make a huge impact on the Skyhawks' success this season. Beulah always challenges Shiloh when it comes to the Region 8 tournament, but I think the Skyhawks have enough this year to get into the state tournament and do some damage trying to improve upon last year’s third-place finish.
4. Park River-F-L
A three-time defending state champion sits fourth in my preseason rankings. Someone needs to give them bulletin board material, right?
If you’ve read about the three selections above, you’ve already learned plenty about what the Aggies have accomplished over the last half-decade. They simply have been the best program in the state for a long time. But they go from having seven seniors last year to just one senior with extensive varsity experience in Jayse Fontaine. The departure of last year’s Class B senior athlete of the year Adam Zavalney, along with his brother Nathan Zavalney, Nick Thompson, and the rest of that senior class leaves behind a big void.
That said, Brett Omdahl is hands down one of the best coaches in the state, which means even if the Aggies take a step back this year it won’t be a big one. Along with Fontaine (.337 BA, 25 RBI; 1.90 ERA in 2019), juniors Sam Hagen and Kaleb Hodny provide some punch at the plate. Success breeds success and that’s why I believe the Aggies could overcome such a drastic roster turnover.
5. Bishop Ryan
The Lions took a 12-game win streak to state last year before losing back to back games and nabbing a 7th place finish with a victory over Mohall-L-S/G in their final game. The Lions were a high-scoring team all season, averaging just over nine runs per game, but it was their pitching depth that took a hit once they reached the state tournament. First-team all-state pick Kersey Harris and second-team all-state selection Logan Merck were poised to lead a team that had quite a bit of varsity experience returning this spring.
Class A Softball
1. West Fargo
The 2019 Packers proved a point. They’re still the team to beat. After missing out on the state title for the first time in program history in 2018, the Packers swept the EDC regular season, EDC tournament and state tournament titles in 2019. Pat Johnson has now won 21 state titles in 22 seasons and this year’s squad has the potential to raise another trophy.
The Packers graduated a couple of standouts in pitcher/outfielder Courtney Boll and infielder Lauren Diemert, but still return quite a bit of talent. All-state selection Tori Nichols-Kraft enters her senior season coming off an impressive junior campaign. Nichols-Kraft, a University of Minnesota-Morris commit, finished with a 9-2 record in the circle last season and boasted a gaudy .582 batting average. Mariah Peters hit .412 last season and has committed to play college softball at the University of North Dakota. Catcher Ashlyn Diemert was an all-state selection last year as a sophomore after hitting .447 BA. The combination of skill, team chemistry and coaching put the Packers at the top of my list.
The reigning WDA tournament champs return seven starters from last year’s state tournament runner-up squad that finished with a 28-4 record. Logan Gronberg was named Gatorade Player of the Year last spring as a freshman. That tells you all you need to know about her potential. Gronberg punished pitching as a freshman with a .651 BA, 18 HR and 72 RBI. Those numbers are incredible! She also delivers multiple pitches from the circle and averages about 60 mph to the catcher’s mitt. Emma Barta, a Butler Community College-commit, returns for her senior season after hitting .506 and scoring 45 runs as a junior.
With Gronberg, Barta and Macy Wetsch leading the way, I feel like this Demons team could put up some unbelievable offensive numbers. The question in the postseason would be if those bats could keep hammering away against the state’s top arms.
Much like their rivals from Bismarck, the Patriots can crush the softball. Century averaged 11.0 runs per game last year, trailing only Dickinson (11.9 runs/gm) and Bismarck (11.1 runs/gm). Finding consistency was the issue in the postseason last year for Century. They scored double digits in their trio of postseason victories but were limited to just two runs in both the WDA championship game and the nail-biting 3-2 state semifinal loss to West Fargo.
The Patriots are the only team in Class A to return more than one all-state player. In fact, they return three in senior Maddie Grad and juniors Malee Whittenberg and Maddy Zander. Zander and Grad make up one of the most impressive batteries you’ll find in the state. Zander has been pitching gems for a few years now against varsity competition and Grad has a gun behind the plate. On the offensive side, hitting has been contagious for Kevin Ziegler’s team and they’ve proven they can attack you from any spot in the lineup.
4. Valley City
Great pitching can do a lot for a team and the Hi-Liners have one of the best in junior Hailey Schaefer. The dominant right-hander helped Valley City finish 3rd at state last year. Schaefer was marvelous in the Hi-Liners opening round 10-3 victory over Dickinson racking up 14 strikeouts in the win.
The Hi-Liners were close to reaching the state championship game but fell to Bismarck 8-7 in eight innings in the semifinal round out in Minot. This Hi-Liners team got a good taste of success in the postseason last year and return enough to make a run again in 2020.
The Midgets have been the highest-scoring team in the state each of the last two seasons. So, you better believe that they have the horses in the lineup to erupt for double-digit runs against any opponent again in 2020.
Amanda Mickey does a great job running the Midgets softball program and she’s produced a lot of talented players the last several years. The next great player is Taya Hopfauf who cracked the all-state team last spring as a freshman. Hopfauf and Mataya Mortensen are just sophomores but will be relied on as leaders for the offense and defense. Both Hopfauf and Mortensen hit over .430 last year helping the Midgets to a 26-10 record and fifth-place finish at state. The young talent on this squad should have Dickinson in the state title hunt for years to come.
Class B Softball
1. Central Cass
If a season were to happen, Central Cass would have to be pegged as the favorite to take home the crown for a third consecutive season. They may have graduated a strong senior class highlighted by Payton Richter and Lexi Buhr, but the talent keeps on coming up the ranks for Scott Kost’s program. Kaitlyn Houle showed a lot of promise last year in the circle and has the potential to dominate opposing lineups entering her senior season. Standout catcher Isabelle Linnard somehow has another year of eligibility. She’s been a mainstay in the Squirrels lineup since she was an 8th grader and hit over .500 last year with 40+ RBI. Senior Josie Buhr is another big bat in a lineup that should provide more than enough offense for a team that always seems to pitch and defend at an elite level.
2. Des Lacs-Burlington/Lewis & Clark
The Lakers are coming off an outstanding 2019 season in which they finished 3rd at state with a 16-4 overall record. The best part for this year’s team is that they graduated only one senior from that 2019 squad.
Senior pitcher Erica Hermanson is the tone-setter for the group and has been a dominant pitcher throughout her varsity career which goes all the way back to the middle school days. The 4-time all-state selection helped the Lakers advance to the state championship game as a sophomore and she definitely has the tools to get them back to that same spot as a senior.
Two-time all-state selection Brynley Benno, along with her cousin Brooklyn Benno, also gives the Lakers a couple of rock-solid hitters in the lineup. Brooklyn also does a great job in the pitching circle for Peggy Person’s team. A battle-tested team with a star pitcher… now that sounds like a legit state championship contender.
Did someone say state championship contender? Kindred-Richland knows a thing or two about hoisting the big trophy on the final day of the season. The Vikings have won the crown three times in the last six years and surprised many by making it all the way to the championship game last year despite a rocky regular season. Sam Brandt had the best seat in the house watching her team grow up before her very eyes last season, culminating with that postseason run. The most significant departure for the Vikings came in the form of graduated senior Amanda Roesler. But, plenty of familiar faces return highlighted by pitcher Abby McDonald and outstanding senior catcher Madi Olien. Olien’s name will always bring up great memories for Kindred fans who watched her deliver the walk-off hit in the state championship game as a freshman in the 1-0 win over Central Cass.
4. Heart River
If you ask Class B coaches in North Dakota to give you their top pitchers in the state, I don’t think any of them will forget to name Heart River's senior Abby Kessel. In fact, she might be the first name that comes to mind. That’s the respect that comes with being a three-time, all-state selection and one of the most unsolvable hurlers in the state. Kessel helped the Cougars achieve a 21-1 record before heading to Fargo for the state tournament. That’s where things turned sour for the Cougars who were unable to find their groove in losses to Kindred-Richland and Thompson at NDSU’s Tharaldson Park.
They did defeat Velva-Drake/Anamoose for a 7th place finish in their final game of the year. Taylar Fagerberg is a player that we’ll be talking about for many years to come following her strong performance as a freshman last year. The Cougars only started one senior last year, so this is a team that’s very familiar with each other and that is a huge benefit for the head coach Kendra Schillo.
Learning lessons. That’s what the Aggies took away from its experience at the state tournament last spring. They may have gone 0-3 in Fargo, but they competed hard in every game and certainly belong on the contender radar in 2020.
Emma and Olivia Passa joined the Aggies program last year coming from Bishop Ryan and made an instant impact. Emma Passa put up great numbers making her a no-brainer selection for all-state thanks to her play in the circle and the outfield. Emma is a special story because she tore her ACL last summer and put in a lot of time recovering from surgery. It’s a shame that she likely won’t be given the chance to return to the field because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also, Velva added a summer fastpitch team in 2019. I’d expect the Aggies to be among the top-ranked teams year in and year out for the foreseeable future.