Last season's near-miss provided plenty of motivation for the University of Mary softball team.
As the Marauders open the season this weekend in Las Vegas, coach Kerry Shaw is hopeful last year's disappointing ending will prove a distant memory.
"We went into the last week of the season controlling our own destiny and we just didn't get it done," Shaw said. "It was a pretty bitter pill to swallow. I think it was something that motivated our players and hopefully this year we can get over the hump."
Ten of the 16 teams in the Northern Sun make the postseason tournament. Shaw has made progress in his two seasons as head coach. He was hired just weeks before practice began in 2016 with the roster in tough shape -- 13 players, including three pitchers. Last year, the Marauders won 20 games and were just under .500 (14-16) in the NSIC. This year, Shaw is hoping to take another step forward.
"I'm pretty optimistic that we've made some improvements in our depth and with our athletic versatility on the roster," Shaw said. "What's probably going to determine how much improvement we show on the field will be based on our defensive consistency.
"If we can dominate the routine, which is what we preach, I think we can be a pretty competitive team."
The Marauders return a pair of seasoned pitchers in junior Brieann Backes of Minot and Dickinson's Madison Jahner. Backes posted a solid 3.51 earned run average over 146 1/3 innings last season with a team-best 10 wins. Jahner pitched mostly in relief, but logged more than 90 innings.
Freshman Sarah Thompson rounds out the pitching staff and will see early innings as Jahner is eased back into action due to nagging injuries. Shaw said Thompson has a "high ceiling."
Colleen Crutchfield will anchor the lineup, which Shaw affectionately characterized as "pesky." The senior from Oregon City, Ore., posted a .340 batting average last season. She'll be the primary catcher, but Shaw also brought in three freshman backstops for depth. Crutchfield hit nine home runs two seasons ago. Injuries forced Crutchfield to third base last season where she played well defensively.
Leadoff batter Rebekkah Keller is back in center field after leading the Marauders in hitting last season at .356.
Also returning to the lineup are second baseman Kylie Alto and Madison McGonigal. Alto's four homers were second on the team last season, while McGonigal can play just about anywhere on the diamond.
The lineup gets a boost from a handful of junior college additions.
Paige Matsuki has impressed early both offensively and defensively. Matsuki, a junior from Waimanalo, Hawaii, will start at shortstop and hit in the middle of the order.
Sophomore speedster Emma Noble can play infield and outfield and junior Stephanie Alvarez has shown promise with the bat.
The Marauders face a challenging start to the season. They play three games on Friday in Las Vegas, primarily against teams that have been practicing in the sunshine for weeks. U-Mary, meanwhile, has been confined indoors. Over the last two years, the Marauders are 0-10 in Las Vegas.
"It's a slight advantage to get on real dirt and to be able to take fly balls, but that's just something we can't do yet," said Shaw, whose team leaves for Las Vegas on Thursday morning. "We know we're going to be playing some quality teams, but we're excited to be able to play some games and get a measure of where we're at."