After two straight trips to the state quarterfinals, North Mecklenburg softball coach Paul Kikta had high expectations for his team coming into the season.
"We need to take that next step forward and get to the final four and take our chances up in Raleigh," he said.
Coming back to Huntersville without the school's first softball title would be a letdown for Kikta and his Vikings.
"We're close - we're there," he said. "We just have to hopefully get that lucky bounce or two that's needed to win a state championship."
His players are also optimistic about their title chances this June.
"I feel like this is our year," said senior centerfielder Natalie Stokes. "I think everything is coming together - what we've worked on for four years."
Kikta said his Vikings (14-3, 7-1) are the most talented team from top to bottom that he's had in his six years coaching at North Meck.
The team returns all of their starters from last year's playoff run except for two players lost to graduation.
"We've got a fully loaded team," Kikta said.
After a slow start, during which the team struggled to hit the baseball, the Vikings' coaching staff put a greater emphasis on that aspect of the game.
"Deep into the playoffs the last couple of years, it has been our Achilles' heel - not being able to hit good pitching," Kikta said.
The coaching staff focuses about 70 percent of the team's practice time on hitting. The Lady Vikings, which have six seniors on their roster, have also put in more hours individually, coming in to hit during weekends and free time.
Senior Natalie Tarte, who plays first base and right-field, said the team has done a lot of cage work with tees and has been hitting against different types of pitches. She added that hitting has become contagious within the team.
"We feed off each others' energy," Tarte said.
The Vikings, who are in first place in the I-Meck Conference (as of April 21), have turned it around after their 1-0 loss against Lake Norman and have been hitting well recently, which has led to more runs.
"It's starting to pay off," Kikta said.
The team has been led by Sara Mooney, who Kikta said is one of the better hitters and catchers in the state. Mooney has been hitting so well that she has forced opposing coaches to pitch around her.
Sophomore Jasmyn Lindsey has also stepped up her hitting game and has been a big contributor for her squad.
Kikta added that his team's pitching, led by Morgan Lashley and Sara Allen, has also picked up while the team's defense has been better. The Vikings' shortstop, senior Lauren Lewis, has yet to make an error this season and has had what called a phenomenal year on the field.
Team chemistry is also high these days at North Meck.
"They're together - they want to win games and play hard," Kikta explained.
Stokes agreed that the team is close and that they encourage each other on and off the field.
To win the I-Meck, Kikta said, the team needs to win outright because the Wildcats as well as Hopewell and Mooresville are within striking distance of the title.
"We can't slip up," he said. "We have to take it one step at a time and take care of business."