The Bishop Ryan softball team hasn't played many close games this season, but the way the Lions handled their most recent challenge encouraged coach Julie Stewart.
With the Lions trailing 4-1 entering the fifth inning at West Region rival Dickinson on May 14, Stewart saw her squad morph into a more intense bunch. The Lions came back to win 5-4 and swept Minot High School in their regular-season finale to enter this weekend's region tournament as the No. 1 seed and winners of 15 straight.
Ryan (17-1) earned a first-round bye and awaits the winner of Friday's matchup between No. 4 Minot and No. 5 Bismarck High in the semifinals.
Bishop Ryan senior Sam Smith drives a ball into the outfield against Bismarck Century on May 13 at South Hill Complex. The Lions are the top seed in the West Region tournament, which begins Friday in Jamestown.
"There was a switch that turned on in the fifth inning (against Dickinson) that we're not going to let this game go," Ryan coach Julie Stewart said. "Both offensively and defensively, we took it to a whole other level."
The Lions' average level has been sufficient to punish most opponents. Sophomore Hannah Stewart, Julie's daughter, is 9-1 in the circle with a 0.42 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 62 innings. Hannah also leads the team with a .480 batting average, followed by freshman Sheyenne Schmidt (.470) and juniors Maddie Lipp (.420) and Anika Rovig (.400).
Julie Stewart said this Ryan team has more experience and a deeper batting order than last year's state runner-up group, which outscored opponents 47-3 in the region tournament. But it is the focus the Lions showed in the tight ballgame with Dickinson they hope to duplicate.
"Seeing that we can bring the intensity level up was good because come tournament time everyone's gonna be on their best game," junior catcher Maddie Lipp said. "We have to be even more intense and more competitive than them."
Julie Stewart said second-seeded Jamestown is the most well-rounded opponent, but singled out No. 3-seeded Century's batting order as the toughest the Lions could face.
"Dickinson kind of has a complete package with some good defense, solid pitching and backup pitching," she said. "You can't really take any team lightly because hitting can be contagious and sometimes errors can be contagious. You just really want to jump on opportunities when things are going well and not let errors or a few bad at-bats take you down."
Minot is looking to advance after losing in a state-qualifying game to Dickinson last season. MHS (10-9) beat first-round opponent Bismarck 7-2 and 3-2 in a doubleheader this season, with junior ace Lexi Benno pitching both games.
"I think we can control our own destiny here if we can take care of the little things, cut down on the errors and hit the ball," MHS coach Gerard Cederstrom said. "That's what everybody's going to be trying to do, but we have games where we have way too many errors."
Benno sports a 4.84 ERA but Cederstrom said that statistic is misleading due to extended innings and opposing batters gaining confidence from Majette miscues. Benno, the No. 3 hitter, is also batting .411 and leading the team with 16 RBIs and two home runs. Sophomore infielder Haddie Lucy cracked the regular starting lineup midway through the season and leads MHS with a .424 batting average.