As Mahtomedi's baseball team hurtled through the playoffs last season, the Zephyrs' confidence was sky high.
"We thought that we were going to beat any team," pitcher Sean Hjelle said.
The Zephyrs finished 15-1 in their conference and breezed through their section to reach the state tournament for the first time in program history.
Then they met Lakeville South. The Cougars struggled through the regular season, at one point losing 15 consecutive games. It didn't seem like much of a matchup but Lakeville South defeated the Zephyrs 4-3, ending their season.
"We all heard that they won two games, and we thought that we were going to beat them," Hjelle said. "It was kind of a humbling experience to be on such a big win streak and then lose right when we have a state championship in our sights."
The Zephyrs have had to reset their sights this year after graduating 10 seniors and losing nearly all their starters.
Only Hjelle, the team's senior ace, and Sean Noel, a senior catcher, remain from last year's starting lineup.
"It's an awfully tough road and we've got a lot of holes to fill, obviously, and so they know what it's going to take to get [to state] and they know they're going to have to grind a little bit harder because we've got some untested pitchers," coach John Hardgrove said. "We had some guys that were real veteran guys on the mound and those guys are all gone other than Sean."
Hjelle finished last season 7-1 with a 0.78 earned-run average in 49 innings pitched.
Hjelle, who committed to play for Kentucky, is the staff's undisputed leader this year. The Zephyrs got a glimpse of the rest of their pitching staff on a recent team trip to Florida over spring break.
"Some of our young pitchers came out and for the short time they were in, for a couple innings they were in, they threw strikes. Our up-and-coming pitchers threw effectively," Hardgrove said.
Hjelle said the trip answered a lot of the team's question marks, especially about the Zephyrs' offense. Last year's team frequently scored 10 or more runs.
"We figured out that we have a lot of guys that can put the bat on the ball, put it in play and we can get some runs," Hjelle said.
Mahtomedi seemingly picked up where it left off, reaching double digits in a 10-5 season-opening victory at Hudson on Tuesday.
Having the ability to play in three exhibition games and practice outdoors in warm weather for a week undoubtedly helped the team's chemistry both on and off the field before the season began.
"We got a lot of baseball in. It really helped especially when you get back up here. The weather's not too great, so you're able to go from there cause we've already seen a lot of pitching," Noel said.
The trip to Florida was something the team had done for nine consecutive years before taking a five-year break. With many new faces on the team, the trip to Fort Pierce, Fla., was welcomed.
Noel said the captains — himself, Hjelle and fellow senior Sam Mustar — weren't sure how everybody would get along. But those fears were soon put to rest. In addition to practicing and playing, the team spent time at the beach, pool and bowling.
"Staying in the same room with six other guys for one week, you're bound to learn some new things and figure out some things and become closer with your teammates for sure," Hjelle said.
This year's group is inherently looser than last year's — a bit more of the "fun bunch" — which Hardgrove was quick to point out wasn't a bad thing.
"Once they establish their identity, which they sort of did down south, I think things are going to be fine," Hardgrove said. "We've been fortunate that for the last 15 years, our kids have competed well."
Betsy Helfand is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.