North Dakota State opened its season at Arizona during alumni weekend for the Wildcats, who packed 4,000 fans (including more than 100 baseball alumni) into their new home, Hi Corbett Field. It was a homecoming for Bison coach Tod Brown, a Tucson native who played for Jerry Kindall at Arizona in the early 1990s and then served as a volunteer assistant for the Wildcats in 1999. But Brown wasn't only excited to see his old Arizona teammates; he thought his team had a chance to open some eyes in Tucson.
Wildcats coach Andy Lopez quickly came to that same conclusion.
"We had 4,000 people there Friday night, Terry Fracona was back, this and that," Lopez said. "I looked at my staff pregame and said, 'These guys are here to play. They don't look intimidated at all.' I really give credit to coach Brown—that was not an easy weekend. I told my club, 'Those guys are going to beat some people.' "
After losing 3-1 in the opener at Arizona, the Bison pulled off an 8-2 upset Saturday, breaking a 2-2 tie with six runs in the eighth.
"I had a feeling we had a chance after that first game because our guys were really pissed," Brown said. "If we get a hit here or there, we win that game. Our guys were not happy with saying, 'Well, we showed well, this is a moral victory.' We went out and beat them 8-2.
"It was kind of a magical weekend, to have all my teammates there when I beat Arizona. They knew I took over a program that was winning 12 games a year, and now we just beat the fifth-ranked team in the country."
After reclassifying as a Division I member in 2005, the Bison averaged 12.7 wins for three seasons under coach Mitch McLeod. Brown's first team in 2008 went 15-30. His second team won 16 games, and his last two teams won 22 games apiece.
But last year, after the Bison got off to a 2-18 start, they suddenly caught fire in the second half. North Dakota State went 20-14 the rest of the way to finish 15-12 in the Summit League and make the conference tournament for the first time.
"All of a sudden it clicked," Brown said. "We stopped losing the one-run games. Nine of those 18 losses were by a run. We basically got tired of losing, and the switch went on of how to win. Then we got some confidence. It's kind of carried over to this year, some of this newfound success in the Bison baseball program."
The Bison followed up their big weekend at Arizona by sweeping a four-game series against Northern Colorado, a quality Great West opponent. After a losing weekend at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, NDSU got hot again putting together an eight-game winning streak capped by a pair of big wins at Minnesota. The Bison are 14-5 heading into this weekend's series against North Dakota, and they look poised to reach last season's 22-win plateau by midseason.
"It's been a long road," Brown said. "This is my fifth year, so our first recruiting class are seniors right now. These guys are some good players, we've gotten good players behind them, and it's coming together now."
Brown's first recruiting class has evolved into a confident, experienced group of winners. Fourth-year junior righthander John Straka (2-2, 3.15) and senior righty Luke Anderson (4-0, 3.40) make for a quality one-two punch atop the rotation, and both could play pro ball next year. Straka, a Tommy John survivor, is a competitive strike-thrower who works in the 88-91 range and bumps 92, and his breaking ball has improved significantly from past years. He threw a complete-game shutout against Minnesota last week. Anderson sits at 88-90 and has made great strides with his command. Brown said both righties have benefitted from pitching coach Jake Angier's new focus on throwing off the mound more frequently between starts, at 70 percent effort.
"It's really made a difference in our guys' command," Brown said. "It's like a hitter taking batting practice more, live BP instead of being in the cages. Our guys really like it because it's low effort."
The Sunday starter is another senior—righthander Zach Wentz, who is one of the most valuable players on the team thanks to his ability to contribute both ways. He plays the infield corners and has improved at third base enough to elevate his prospect status. Brown said Wentz (.347/.424/.507, 2 HR, 21 RBI) has also gotten stronger physically, though he has been a staple in the middle of the lineup throughout his career.
"He's hit 3-hole for us for four straight yeras, and he's been a starting pitcher for us for four straight years," Brown said. "Obviously that's a hell of a find in our first recruiting class, a guy that can hit in the middle of the lineup and pitch in the rotation for four straight years."
Perhaps the Bison's most physically talented player is senior right fielder Nick Anderson (.368/.403/.649, 3 HR, 14 RBI), a 6.7 runner with a strong arm and some pop in his bat. Brown said Anderson "shows flashes of greatness," but just needs to put together quality at-bats more consistently. So far this year, he has shown good progress in that area.
Yet another senior, left fielder Nick Colwell (.461/.512/.711, 2 HR, 22 RBI), is the team's leading hitter. Colwell and his younger brother Tim (.432/.473/.654), a sophomore center fielder, are the engines that make the Bison go from the top two spots in the lineup.
"When they hit, we go well," Brown said. "They've been our driving force. They're similar type hitters. They're both lefthanded, both about the same size. Tim runs a lot better than Nick. By they play hard, they put consistently good swings on balls, they put the ball in play, they're very aggressive. They're workaholics. I've never played with or coached kids that just, they're genuinely mad when we tell them it's time to go because practice is over. They usually go to the cages themselves or take some other guys with them and go hit some more. It's rubbed off on the other guys. They've really raised the bar as far as the work ethic."
North Dakota State has found success recruiting hard-nosed players to Fargo, where they share a 4,500-chairback-seat stadium with the independent Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks. The winter has been milder than usual this year, allowing the team to get outside on their field in March (usually the gates aren't even opened until April). The baseball team does some indoor defensive work in the Fargo Dome, where the football team plays, and a new indoor track facility will double as the baseball team's indoor facility, where the Bison can hang nets and do more hitting.
So the infrastructure is in place for North Dakota State to become a consistent winner in the Summit League.
"We have a lot of kids from the upper Midwest that wanted to stay closer to home at a Division I school and build something we were trying to build," Brown said. "We've got a blue collar-type mentality in the upper Midwest. You've got to be tough to play here, there's no other way to put it. These guy refuse to use the weather issues as an excuse.
"We're getting lots of pats on the backs, lots of media requests. Ultimately we'll be judged by how we do in the Summit League. This is nice. This program has not had this kind of publicity, success early in the year. I want our guys to get off the bus and have some swagger to them, but there's a point your head can swell too much. I want our guys to know we got here for one reason—hard work, determination. We're not going to change now."
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