The Fosston baseball team was built for success in 2020 but the coronavirus pandemic derailed the hopes of a talented senior class.
With that group gone, the 2021 Greyhounds stumbled out of the gates with a 3-4 record through seven games.
"Nobody was upset at anybody," Fosston junior centerfielder Jacob Gutterud said. "That's just the way some of those games went. Slowly, we started to improve on things, grow and get better as a team and started to play a higher level of baseball."
That marked improvement comes to a head this week as Fosston plays in the Minnesota Class A state tournament, which starts Tuesday in St. Cloud. The unseeded 19-6 Greyhounds face No. 3 and unbeaten Randolph in the quarterfinals at 12:15 p.m. at Putz Field.
For veteran coach Ryan Hanlon, it's the program's third trip to the state tournament. The Greyhounds also made it in 2010 and 2017.
"Coming into the year, we were a young team, so we didn't know where we were at," Hanlon said. "We thought our strength would be pitching and fielding but that was a big struggle for us in the first seven games of the season. We walked a lot of guys and had a lot of errors."
Since, however, the Greyhounds have been sharp in the field. Fosston committed no errors in two championship games against East Grand Forks Sacred Heart during last week's Section 8A tournament.
"Since then, pitching and defense is our strength, for sure," Hanlon said. "We finished the season 16-2. We don't have any overpowering pitchers. We have guys who throw strikes and keep guys off balance. That's always been our philosophy -- throw strikes, keep hitters off balance.
"Then make the routine plays. You don't have to do anything fancy. If we do that, we have a chance to win. We just want to have a chance to win late in the game. If you have six errors, it's going to be a tough time winning."
Fosston has eight players hitting .300 or better, led by Evan Chalich's .385 average. Carsen Boushee is hitting .345, while Keegan Senger is at .333, Lance Balstad .324, Cullen Norland .324, Aaron Norland .314, Tommy Simonson at .302 and Gutterud at .300.
Cullen Norland (23 stolen bases), Aaron Norland (25 stolen bases), Dane Schoenborn (23 stolen bases) and Lance Balstad (17 stolen bases) have led an aggressive group of baserunners.
"We were unsure about the start of the season because it was a tough schedule," Chalich said. "Our coaches helped us mentally on that and told us to stay positive. We weren't going to sweep through the start of the season without any issues. I just think it was a lot of inexperience."
Hanlon said this Fosston group is different than his past state tournament teams. In 2010, Fosston could outscore teams and set the state's slugging percentage record that year, he said.
In 2017, the veteran-laden lineup was defensively sound and finished with 14 errors in 17 games.
This year, it's been a complete mixed bag.
"We've outhit people some, we've had games where we've pitched well but for the most part, it's team chemistry," Hanlon said. "Guys are having a blast. They're having fun playing. They've had some crazy games. Losing that first championship to Sacred Heart (in the section tournament), you wonder how they'd respond. It was like it never happened."
Noah Mahlen has been Fosston's top pitcher. He's 4-1 in 32 innings with 50 strikeouts. Aaron Norland and Cullen Norland each have three wins, while Chalich is 2-1 with 37 strikeouts in 25.2 innings.
"We just have a special bond as a team," said Gutterud, a three-year starter. "Everybody gets along well. We're always lifting each other up and encouraging people with a next-play mentality."
"We all have good relationships," Chalich said. "The guys who don't play as much, they never complain. They're always positive and cheering guys on. When the starters come out and bench comes in, the starters are cheering that, too. It's a good community of a team."
Fosston will be the underdog at state against 22-0 Randolph.
"We're going down there to compete," Gutterud said. "We don't know much about any of the teams down there. We're going to compete, have fun and the message all year has been, we want to win every game, but we're looking to get better on the things we've been working on."
"Our mindset is to just show up, play our best game and whatever happens, happens," Chalich said. "I think a lot of people overlook us. I don't think people think how good we can be. I think we'll show what we can do."
Fosston at a glance
Coach: Ryan Hanlon.
Hitters: Cullen Norland .324, 15 RBI, 27 runs, 10 BB, 13 HP, 23 SB; Aaron Norland .314, 14 RBI, 29 runs, 17 BB, 25 SB; Tommy Simonson .302, 8 2Bs, 18 RBI, 18 BB; Noah Mahlen .286, 3 2Bs, 31 RBI, 16 runs, 10 BB; Evan Chalich .385, 2 2B, 1 HR, 21 RBI, 20 runs; Carsen Boushee .345, 4 2Bs, 1 HR, 18 RBI, 10 runs, 7 BB; Lance Balstad .324, 4 2Bs, 1 HR, 19 RBI, 24 runs, 10 BB, 17 SB; Max Staehnke .271, 13 runs, 10 BB, 10 SB; Keegan Senger .333, 3 2B, 12 RBI, 18 runs, 9 BB, 9 SB; Jacob Gutterud .300, 5 2Bs, 1 3B, 1 HR, 16 RBI, 18 runs, 11 BB, 11 SB; Dane Schoenborn 23 SBs
Pitchers: Noah Mahlen 4-1, 4.32 ERA, 32 IP, 50 Ks, 12 BB, 3 HP; Evan Chalich 2-1, 6.00 ERA, 25.2 IP, 37 Ks, 21 BB, 8 HP; Aaron Norland 3-1, 3.25 ERA, 23 IP, 22 Ks, 11 BB, 2HP; Cullen Norland 3-1, 2.83 ERA, 23 IP, 39 Ks, 10 BB, 2 HP