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Jeff Kolpack, Published May 10 2012

Bison baseball contending for a Summit League championship after a few losing seasons

FARGO – It was four years ago when a group of baseball players came to North Dakota State, looked around and liked something they saw: each other.

That was the start. It took a couple of years and a bunch of losses to reach the point the Bison are at – contending for a Summit League title – but the fact they’re 35-13 is a testament in persistence.

“Absolutely amazing,” shortstop Max Casper said of the program’s growth. “Where we started the first day we came in our freshman year to where we are now … the turnaround has been phenomenal.”

NDSU finds itself in the hunt for a regular-season title with Oakland University (Mich.) and Oral Roberts. The Bison finish the league season with both teams beginning with a four-game series at Newman Outdoor Field against Oakland. The opener is at 6:30 tonight.

Casper is one of the program changers along with third baseman-pitcher Zach Wentz and pitcher John Straka. Casper and Wentz are two of eight seniors playing their final home games. Straka had to redshirt after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

The first thing the Bison seniors did was change the off-the-field demeanor of the team, said head coach Tod Brown. Next came better academic performance in the classroom (a 3.2 team grade-point average this year) and the last piece of the puzzle, winning, came last year.

“The winning part is the toughest to teach,” Brown said.

After a 2-18 start last season, the Bison won 20 of their last 34 games to set the table for this season.

“Honestly, there was a lot of potential,” Casper said, “but you just weren’t sure when it was going to come out or how everybody was going to fit together and when they were going to fit together.”

Casper will go down as one of the best fielding shortstops the program has ever had. And as Brown said, when the shortstop is good, it makes the other fielders around him better.

His grandfather, Bob Johnson, played for the University of Minnesota. Sadly, he passed away in the past year, and that made the Bison-Gophers games this season seem like something was missing, Casper said.

A graduate of St. Thomas Academy in the Twin Cities, he said playing at Minnesota like his grandfather did wasn’t a cut-and-dried priority. He was open to going anywhere, he said.

When Brown called and asked him to walk on, Casper answered. Still, NDSU went 16-28, 22-30 and 22-32 his first three years.

“It was a grind, no doubt,” Casper said. “We knew we would take our lumps but we waited it out.”

He’s worked at it. His college batting average is better than his high school average. He spent two summers playing in the New York Collegiate League.

The hope, Casper said, is to pass the work ethic down to the younger players. He said the seniors already did their best to rid the team of a class structure.

“As we’ve gotten older, we’ve tried to make it more of a team thing rather than a sophomore, junior or senior thing,” Casper said.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia