WEST FARGO — The coronavirus pandemic threw the West Fargo and West Fargo Sheyenne baseball and softball teams an unhittable curveball last year.
It was lights out for both sports — two of six spring sports that were left without a high school season. The softball and baseball teams hadn’t started practicing yet when their seasons, which were initially suspended, were canceled.
It was a long wait to get back on the field. Packers and Mustangs players and coaches finally completed the countdown two weeks ago.
“It’s been a long time. I know we’ve all been waiting for it for a while and we’ve been putting in a lot of work,” said Ashlyn Diemert, senior catcher for West Fargo's softball team. “It was super exciting to get back out there and start playing as a team again.”
It was in the lower 50s, under sunny skies when both sports got back on the diamond March 22 to start their seasons.
“Even though some of them had a summer season, it’s nice to be back out in the spring,” said West Fargo baseball head coach Brett Peterson. “On the field, in Packer gear, getting ready to play some high school games after a long absence.”
The teams were welcomed back with the fifth-warmest March on record, according to WDAY chief meteorologist John Wheeler. Peterson’s team took advantage of the weather — spending a lot of time on the field and practicing outdoors.
The Packers have a lot of new faces this year who will benefit from the more-than-usual on-field work, thanks to the nice weather.
“It’s almost a brand new look,” said Peterson, in his 17th season as head coach. “We’ve got a handful of guys with some varsity experience.”
West Fargo has just three players with any significant varsity experience at all. When the Packers open the season Friday as part of a four-game road swing in South Dakota, many of his guys will be playing varsity baseball for the first time.
The Packers bring back most of their experience on the mound. The biggest question mark for his team is on the defensive side, Peterson said, but he’s confident in his group and how they’ll develop over the season. West Fargo was picked to finish fourth in the Eastern Dakota Conference in the Class A preseason coaches poll.
“I think we’ll be competitive this year,” Peterson said. “Our goal is to fight for one of those top four spots heading into the EDC tournament.”
It’s a different story on the other side of town. West Fargo Sheyenne graduated just one senior last year, Drew Clouse, who is playing baseball at the University of Sioux Falls.
The Mustangs won the East Region baseball championship in 2019, and return a nice chunk of experience from that year’s team. Sheyenne has 10 seniors on its roster this year, and was projected to finish first in the conference in the preseason coaches poll.
“I think all of our guys were excited to get back out and get back to work again with not being able to play last year,” Sheyenne senior Alex Urlaub said. “I’m definitely excited to play, but there’s always that fear or worry about ‘what if something happens’. You just can’t take it for granted. Especially this year, because you never know what can happen with COVID.”
Urlaub, a shortstop and right-handed pitcher, doesn’t need to be reminded to not take things for granted. He played for the West Fargo Patriots last summer, which brought some normalcy to the strange ending of his junior year.
If it weren’t for summer ball, the Mustangs and Peterson’s Packers would’ve had an entire year without throwing, hitting and getting on the mound. The Mustangs also open their season Friday in South Dakota in a four-game road swing.
“You don’t want to miss your last year of playing high school baseball for your school,” Urlaub said. “You want to represent your school well.”
Urlaub committed to Neosho County Community College in Kansas in September. He hit .382 with seven doubles, a home run and 16 RBIs his sophomore season at Sheyenne. He’s hoping to get the most out of the season to prepare him for the next level.
“There’s definitely that time, especially in baseball, where you need time to get yourself going. You might struggle right away because you don’t have all those at-bats or you haven't thrown that many innings yet,” Urlaub said. “Having a season will definitely help me get ready.”
Three miles away, West Fargo’s softball team has been relishing its return to the field. The Packers didn’t get a chance to defend their Class A state title last year. A perennial state power, the Packers have won 10 of the last 11 state tournaments.
Like the school’s baseball team, the Packers boast a young squad this year.
“I think we can contend, we just have to clean up some things and put in some work, and that’ll pay off, I think,” Diemert said. “With Pat (Johnson), he knows what he’s doing and he’ll get us ready for that. As long as we get working and don’t take any days off, I think we’ll be just fine.”
The last time Diemert, who will play softball for Valley City State, played for the Packers, she was a sophomore. Diemert was instantly thrust into a senior leadership role for the youth-filled team.
“It’s different — not having a junior year and just going to senior year,” Diemert said. “Really trying to be a leader to those younger girls and help them through it and show them what it’s like to be at this level.”
Diemert and the Packers open their season on the road Friday with a doubleheader against Minot. West Fargo was picked to finish first statewide in the Class A preseason coaches poll.