The Ellsworth Panthers had their eyes on the largest prize at the beginning of the 2018 softball season. With obvious talent on their roster, the Panthers were outspoken about their belief in making it to the WIAA Division 2 State Tournament early on despite not having played a single game of the season.

Now, as the Panthers head to the 2019 state tournament, sophomore Claire Kummer reflects on last year's goal and why it didn't pan out as planned.

"I totally remember that and talking like, 'Oh my gosh, state - we're gonna go,'" Kummer recalled. "We didn't, and I think part of that was because we had that plan for ourselves."

This season, the Panthers still share the same belief in their team's potential as they did in 2018, but now it's overshadowed by their faith in a higher power whose plan they've poured their trust into.

Every team has its own unique pregame ritual. Some teams get their adrenaline pumping by running sprints in the outfield. Others turn to their favorite tunes to get in the zone. These typical routines are also carried out by the Ellsworth team, but the Panthers never take the field without coming together in a circle, bowing their heads, closing their eyes and thanking their god for the opportunity to play the game they love through prayer.

The prayers are typically led by junior Emma Florcyk, and they're also carried out at the conclusion of every practice and game. The first base player has an idea of what's changed among her teammates in a matter of 12 months.

"We've had good athletes in the past, and we've good team bonding, too," Florcyk said. "But there's something about this year. We have a good team bond, we have great athletes still, and I feel like because of praying and stuff God is working miracles and just setting a fire within us and making us believe.

"We want it so bad, and we give it to Him because He's the one that ultimately decides what happens."

Florcyk, who was raised in a Christian home, introduced her teammates to the incorporation of prayer in high school athletics during the first practice of the 2019 season.

"I was just like, 'We're going to start this new thing, but don't feel obligated to do it; we're not forcing anybody,'" Florcyk said.

Florcyk believes the entire team has bought into the team's new routine, but she admits she was prepared to face some skepticism at first.

"Some of them were kind of like, 'Oh, what the heck?' But some of them were like, 'Yeah, let's do it,'" Florcyk recalled. "I was so nervous because religion nowadays is kind of controversial based on how you bring it up and what you bring it into. So I was like, 'OK, am I going to get judged for this?' But if you truly believe in something, you shouldn't really care."

Florcyk decided to expose the largest part of her identity with her teammates, and in return, she only grew closer to the girls she's shared the game of softball with since her 10U days.

"It brings us closer together with something that's bigger than softball," Kummer said. "It gives us something to connect over on a deeper level than what sports can give you. A good hit is so temporary, but bonding over religion is a lasting effect."

"You're in a really vulnerable moment there when you're just all letting it out there and just kind of opening your hearts up," junior Kaitlyn Nugent explained. "It really does make you that much closer spiritually and physically while you're wrapping your arms around them."

Together, the Panthers have come to a shared realization that if they take care of controlling the controllables, which includes the hours they've committed to improving their game outside of practice and games, their god will take care of the rest.

"I think it gives us a mindset that He has a plan for us and whatever happens will happen," sophomore Brianna Giese said.

It's easy for a team to be grateful when winning becomes a norm, but how does it respond on an off day? According to the Panthers, their faith and gratefulness weren't diminished after their two losses on the season.

"This year, what I think has changed is that we realize that the losses are just blessings as well," Kummer said. "The losses are just as awesome as the wins; they give you something to reflect on and look forward to overcoming."

This mentality has eliminated any visible discouragement when the Panthers are on the field. The only time fans will find slumped shoulders is when the Panthers bow their upper body in prayer.

"This year people just talk about how relaxed we are, and I've been thinking about what's changed in the team," Kummer said. "Honestly, a lot of it is just praying and bringing us back to the fact that there is a plan. That's reassuring and calming, and I think that's changed our anxiety on the field."

But the Panthers don't want to limit their spiritual practices to the field or just within their own team. Florcyk began holding Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings at Ethos gym in Red Wing - where her head coach Kenzie Diercks works - earlier in the school year in hopes that she'd be able to share her love for her god with more people than just her teammates. Meetings are held every Saturday at 10 a.m., and all high school athletes are welcome to join in in the meetings Florcyk compares to a Bible study.

"You still get to sleep in and everything, and I usually go get Caribou and Hanisch before every meeting," Florcyk said. "We get coffee, baked goods and Jesus."

The Panthers believe their path to the state tournament was designed by a higher power, and now they want to share the wealth of their faith with those who don't sport Ellsworth's purple and black.

"A rivalry could last four years in high school," Kummer said, "but friendships built on religious beliefs could last forever."