Hunter Ganske went to North Dakota to play softball but discovered it’s a big, big world in the process.
The 19-year-old catcher and third baseman from Killarney spent two years at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake, N.D., and while she’s moving on, she’s thankful for the opportunity.
"Moving away from home and being out on my own and meeting all these people from all around the world, it’s crazy and it’s opened me up to a lot more," Ganske said. "Now I can go visit this person and go see them, and there are all these new experiences I can have because I met all this people.
"I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m so grateful I decided to do it."
She was four when she got into softball, in large part because her parents and her friends all played.
"As I got older, I got more into it," said Ganske, who also played volleyball in high school.
She began playing with the Westman Magic at the 16-and-under level after being named the provincial 14U MVP.
She said her game grew a lot as she made the move to A ball with the Magic.
"Just playing against stronger pitchers makes you a better hitter," Ganske said. "It helped me develop a lot. There are quicker girls, you have to throw quicker, you have to run faster."
She’s only played third base and catcher in the field, with a particular affinity for being behind the plate. She said the position, which is often measured in bruises, appealed to her after working from the mound didn’t pan out.
"I remember I wanted to pitch, because when you’re younger everyone wants to pitch," Ganske said. "I kept telling my dad that and I wasn’t very good. He said ‘No, you want to catch because when you catch, you can see the whole field.’ That’s why I decided that’s what I wanted to do."
The five-foot Ganske said her defensive strengths are calling a good game, and also her quick transfer throw and good arm.
At bat, she considers herself a clutch, power hitter.
When she went into high school, she began to consider the idea of playing post-secondary softball. She began to get emails from schools in Grade 12 and briefly considered only focusing on her education, but ultimately decided to visit Lake Region, in part because Royals head coach Kory Boehmer was the most persistent.
It proved to be a perfect fit.
"Kory is such a friendly person and you could tell if anything was wrong that he would be there for you," Ganske said. "They had a brand new indoor practice facility that was really nice. I never really experienced anything like that living in a small town. That really caught my eye."
While it was her first time away from home, Ganske said it was a good transition because of her tight-knit team.
"You get there and you have a whole other family," Ganske said. "You have 14 new sisters and I think it made it really easy just having them there because we were all going through the same thing and we had each other to lean on."
That relationship was enhanced because the team essentially lived together in one of the dorms, and she actually roomed with teammates.
"You’re like five seconds away from any of the girls," Ganske said. "You’re all best friends, you’re all sisters, you spend every minute of every day together. We’re in classes together, we eat together, we train together, we work out together. You don’t really get a break from them."
The Royals, who compete in the Mon-Dak Athletic Conference, play exhibition games in the fall and then compete in an intensive three-month schedule from mid-February to early May.
She got into four games in her rookie season, drawing a pair of walks in six plate appearances, scoring both times. Ganske came back looking for more.
"The first year it was kind of go with the flow and see what everyone else did," Ganske said. "This past year I was definitely a leader on the team and had to step up and help out the freshmen. I knew what they went through being away from home and stuff, and had to be there for them and be a role model for them."
It certainly proved to be a challenging year.
Much of the team spent a good chunk of the first semester in quarantine, with Ganske having to isolate for three weeks.
"It was a very tough first semester because constantly people at school were getting sick and we all live together and share bathrooms, so everyone was going into quarantine," Ganske said. "It was hard for a lot of the girls to overcome it, and some of the girls weren’t able to continue it and come back for second semester."
She said there were a lot of masks early on, but things began to return to normal as the school year went on.
Unfortunately, Ganske had a bigger problem to overcome. She missed four pre-season games in the fall because she was in quarantine, and had a pair of bigger blows after the holidays.
"I wanted that starting spot catching," Ganske said. "Me and my roommate last year, she was my pitcher, and me and her had a good thing. We were coming in being sophomores and wanted that spot. Then she ended up leaving at Christmas so that was even harder on me because I don’t have my pitcher now and have to work even harder."
Unfortunately, disaster struck just before the season began when she injured her knee.
She was only able to catch one game, with the injury forcing her to play third base. In 30 plate appearances over 18 games, she had five hits, drew five walks, drove in a run and scored four times.
The team finished fifth among seven teams with a conference record of 10-13-1, and an overall mark of 18-21-1.
Off the diamond, she enjoyed Devils Lake, a community of 7,300 people located midway between Minot and Grand Forks just off Highway 2. It’s 166 kilometres southwest of Killarney.
"It’s a good community, I liked it," Ganske said, joking that she was initially thrown by the presence of traffic lights.
Ganske was studying nursing in her first year but switched over to take a science degree. She’s going to study radiologic technology next, which will lead to a career as an X-ray technician.
Since Lake Region is a two-year school, she will be heading to Minot State University to finish her studies. As she begins to zero in on the next step in life, she’s leaving softball behind because her courses and practicum are too much to combine with athletics.
That made saying goodbye to her Royals sisters even more poignant.
"It was very emotional," Ganske said. "Two weeks before we graduated, we went to Montana to play our last couple of games and it was the longest car ride home."
» Twitter: @PerryBergson