It's been 11 months and counting, and Kurt Grensteiner says the frustration hasn't completely gone away.
"Losing a game like that one. We knew we were competitive and it was six outs away with a three-run lead," Grensteiner, the Bismarck High School softball coach recalled, harking back to June 1, 1999. "In my 30 years of coaching, that was probably the toughest loss."
Grensteiner, of course, was referring to the championship game in the state Class A softball tournament at Minot. The Demons took a 6-3 lead into the bottom of the sixth inning, surrendered five runs, and lost 8-6 to perennial powerhouse West Fargo.
As bad as that loss tasted in 2019, events have conspired to make things worse in 2020. With the coronavirus outbreak putting a lid on athletics, the Demons did not get another chance this spring.
"If we don't have a season, it's going to hurt, not being able to take the field and try to avenge that loss," Grensteiner observed.
BHS had every reason to believe another run at a state title was within reach. True, the Demons lost six seniors to graduation, including all-state shortstop Lakyn Stork and all-region outfielder Maddie Steckler, but a lot remained.
The returnees included seven starters, among them all-state pitcher-infielder Logan Gronberg, a sophomore, and all-region catcher Emma Barta, a senior. Gronberg hit .651 last spring with 18 home runs and 72 RBIs in 32 games. Barta hit .608 with four homers, 22 RBIs and 41 runs scored in 27 games.
"We did lose some key parts, but we have a lot of key parts coming back. ... We only have three seniors this year, but we feel we're talented enough to make a run," Grensteiner said. "I think we have a pretty confident bunch so, yeah, losing a season would be really heartbreaking."
Gronberg, a right-hander, shouldered much of the pitching load last season as the Demons fashioned a 28-4 overall record. The other two hurlers, Stork and Kassidy Duttenhefner, graduated.
Others on the list of veteran returnees include infielders Payton Gerving (.518, 0 HR, 20 RBIs) and Paige Hanson (.441, 5, 39) and outfielders Bre Madler (.365, 0, 19) and Macy Wetsch (.416, 5, 33). Wetsch and Madler will graduate this spring. Gerving is a sophomore and Hanson is a junior.
In addition, Grensteiner said there is some talent help ready to make the leap from the junior varsity levels.
"We do have some pitchers, but they're not super-proven yet at the varsity level. Macie Lemar is a junior who has pitched tons of (sub-varsity) innings for us since she was a seventh-grader," he noted. "We're hoping for good things from Macie, and we have a standout eighth-grader, Brielle Wrangham. She's a tall girl with plenty of power."
Grensteiner said there's talent in the pipeline extending well beyond this season.
"We had an extremely strong sophomore class last year ... and we have a strong freshman class and eighth-grade class," he said. "That eighth-grade class is pretty loaded. ... Last year our top three teams finished 71-9, so we do have some younger talent."
Last spring BHS and Century were clearly the class of the West Region, finishing four games ahead of third-place Dickinson in the regional standings. Century finished fourth in the state with a 27-8 record. Dickinson, 26-10, and Minot, 21-15, finished fifth and sixth in the state tournament.
Grensteiner expected Century to be strong again this season, but said the talent level would probably rise, both regionally and statewide.
"Last year it was my opinion that it was the most talented year I'd ever seen in the state. ... This year might be even more talented," he said. "Us and Century, at the end, were probably the two strongest (West Region) teams, but there were other teams sprinkled in the West that were pretty good. You have Minot and Dickinson, and you can throw in Jamestown and Legacy, who have some really good softball players."
"On a given day those teams could beat us. ... And you could throw Mandan in there, too," he added.
Grensteiner said softball is not static, but is getting stronger with each passing season.
"Softball has gotten so much better the last three or four years. It's definitely one of the up-and-coming sports in North Dakota with lots and lots of talent," he observed.
While Grensteiner says the best of the West Region is probably on par with West Fargo, he notes the Packers have an edge on other teams in one key -- respect. West Fargo, which has won 10 of the 11 NDHSAA-sanctioned state Class A tournaments, knows all about winning.
"Confidence and knowing how to win is just huge. That's what West Fargo has. They have talent and they have the mindset. It's tough to beat that," he noted.
With hopes for high school spring sports seasons gone, Grensteiner wonders what a lost season will do to the players in terms of their development.
"It's worrisome, losing a whole season and just getting the athletes back out and playing," he said. "I know everyone is in the same boat, but losing the season for these athletes is huge. They'll be trying to get back in the swing of things and trying to catch up."
"These days athletes put a lot of hours into improving their craft. If you lose some of those hours you can't help but slip back a little bit," he continued. "When you've taken a vacation from that mental drive it's very important to get back out. ... What they do is not easy. It's extremely hard to keep up with the pace of school and working on your craft. Taking all that away and then asking them to jump back into it again isn't going to be easy."
Summer softball offers the opportunity to recover some of those lost spring hours on the diamond, according to Grensteiner.
"For the softball community generally, what steps can we take to get these girls back out and playing at the same level they were?" he mused.
Grensteiner said all the softball players in Bismarck have been encouraged to train together during the summer at the Legacy diamond. Under the current circumstances, those opportunities take on added importance.
"The last few summers we've gotten together collectively a couple of nights a week. We train together, and once they let us get on the fields we want to do that again," he noted. "Until we can get on the fields we have to hope they're practicing on their own and continuing to keep up with their training."
What makes the loss of the 2020 high school season difficult for Grensteiner to absorb is all the off-season work his players did in order to prepare for another strong year.
"Our off-season was extremely strong. We had so many girls who were so driven. ... Our open gyms were just unbelievable. Seeing how ready our girls were for the season, that's what stings a little bit," he said.
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