BILLINGS — Sara Sumner had to take one last look. She stopped her car and peered toward the Huntley Project softball field.
She and five other softball players and a team manager had spent the previous moments celebrating what would have been their senior night. Running around the field. Telling stories. Taking photographs, sporting the new team jerseys they had designed but never got to wear in a game this season.
The COVID-19 outbreak had led to the cancellation of all high school sports for spring, but it couldn’t take this evening of May fun away. But now, ready to go home, it all washed over Sumner. This was it. She surveyed the field for a minute or two, flooded with memories.
Like fellow seniors Addy Hultgren and Jordyn Zimmer, Sumner was also a volleyball player at Huntley Project. The Red Devils had won their third consecutive Class B state volleyball title in November — their current match winning streak stands at 100 — so having a target on their backs was old news.
The softball team, however, won its first state title in program history last spring. And Sumner was eager to see how this group would react to that bull’s eye. That’s one question that wasn’t answered as she looked over the base paths, the dugouts, the field.
“I was thinking about a lot of stuff … everything I’ve gone through on that field and with all those girls and knowing I won’t get that back,” Sumner said. “That was the moment that it hit me pretty hard.”
For Zimmer, that moment hasn’t come yet. Maybe that’s because she’s penciled in to play next year at Williston (N.D.) State. Or maybe it’s the fact she joined an impromptu team with other area players to compete in some summer tournaments.
She still has games to play. But Zimmer conceded it won’t be the same.
“I’ve had a lot of great memories the past three years,” said Zimmer, a third baseman who batted .506 with 31 RBIs last season. “It was just all around fun, all the time. With other sports there’d be different groups of people who would hang out, where softball it was like one big family.”
When this senior group were freshmen in 2017, Huntley Project couldn’t follow-up 2016’s second-place finish. The Red Devils won their first game at state, then dropped their next two. They rebounded to reach the title game in 2018, but lost. Then, behind a 22-1 pitching performance from Hultgren and a blistering offense, the Red Devils broke through last year.
With Hultgren, who had a 1.98 ERA and struck out 214 in 120 innings and also batted .532 with 11 homers and 36 RBIs, Sumner (.582), Zimmer, Angel Henry (.415), Kierian Johnson (.276) and Kaitlyn Sherburne (.333 in limited at-bats) back to provide senior leadership, a repeat run wasn’t out of the question.
But any season, maybe a senior season even more so, is also about memories as much as trophies. That, as much as anything, is what Hultgren was looking forward to the most.
“I don’t know what it is for softball, but we’re crazier than any other sport in the school, I think,” said Hultgren, who has scholarship offers to play softball but might opt to attend the University of Montana instead to study nursing or physical therapy. “We’re always in each other’s (hotel) rooms, we’re always playing Cards Against Humanity, having movie night. We’ll go outside and take pictures or try to dance with each other. It’s just a blast.”
And those were the memories that blasted over Sumner as she gazed on that softball field. Yes, the wins and losses were included, but it was mostly the fun times.
Sumner, who plans to hit “the pre-med track” and study cell biology and neuroscience at Montana State with the hopes of eventually becoming a physician’s assistant, was on her way to Washington state to spend some time with cousins. Sumner asked her cousin to pull the car over to the side of the highway so she didn't lose the cellphone connection. Like earlier in the month, Sumner re-hashed her softball memories from a parked car.
“At the end of the day, sometimes it’s just hard to keep thinking about what could have been,” she said into her phone. “You just have to accept what is happening. My heart goes out to my team and what they could carry on next year. If anything, I’m excited to see what they can do since we didn’t get the chance to finish it out.”