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Jeff Kolpack, Published February 19 2014

Bison softball team thinking nationals again

FARGO – The final game of last season had a surprising finish for the North Dakota State softball team, if not shocking. After four straight Summit League tournament titles that resulted in four straight NCAA tournament appearances, the Bison were beaten in their own backyard.

That kind of finish to one of the most successful athletic programs at the school hasn’t been forgotten.

“It was a disappointing end to the season last year,” said NDSU head coach Darren Mueller. “We’re fully capable of getting back and having a good season, but this year the biggest thing is taking care of what we can take care of and not be so concerned about the other schools.”

The Bison finished 33-16, including a 17-1 record and regular-season title in the Summit. But it was Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne that got the NCAA automatic bid, and the Mastodons are a threat to repeat this season.

The Summit appears to be on the upswing. So far in the early going, IPFW has beaten Texas and South Dakota defeated Kansas. NDSU is still in search of a victory over a high-major school with losses to Auburn, Notre Dame and Florida State.

The Bison return all nine position starters and 13 players in all. They’re 4-5 after two trips to tournaments at Auburn and Florida State. Still on the schedule are tournaments at Houston, New Mexico, Stanford and Illinois.

“It’s what we’ve consistently done over the years,” Mueller said of the high level of competition. “We play as many tough teams as we can.”

Shortstop Alex Sobrero hasn’t been fazed so far. She’s hitting .448.

“She’s playing at a level she hasn’t played at since she’s been here,” Mueller said.

The Bison will be without returning starter Alyssa Reina, who started all 49 games last season and was second on the team with a .292 batting average. She had shoulder surgery and will miss the entire season.

On the mound, Krista Menke returns. She was 9-7 with a 3.72 ERA last year. She’s splitting time this season with sophomore Tabby Bayers. Menke is 3-1 with a 1.99 ERA and Bayers 1-3 and a 6.77 ERA, although she’s drawn the tougher assignments.

“Once we stop playing the BCS schools, we’ll have a chance to see where we’re at,” Mueller said.

Eight returning veterans has baseball team optimistic

There are eight reasons why NDSU head baseball coach Tod Brown feels good about his team heading into the season-opening weekend series at USC: The Bison return eight of their top hitters from last season.

Six of them are seniors with four of them – Kyle Kleinendorst (.333), Wes Satzinger (.307), Tim Colwell (.304) and Blake Turbak (.286) – having the top batting averages in 2013. Also back are seniors Michael Leach and Nick Altavilla.

“We’ll rely a lot on those six to do the bulk of the heavy lifting so to speak,” Brown said. “They are meat-of-the-order hitters for us.”

Colwell is a four-year starter, who hit .381 as a sophomore. On the mound, junior David Ernst from Fargo South will be part of a starting rotation that will get tested right away with USC, which is 4-0.

The schedule is not NDSU’s friend this year. Brown lost 14 games with the demolition of the Metrodome with 10 of those slated to be Bison home games. Also, Oakland University’s departure from the Summit leaves the conference with just five baseball-playing schools.

“We had to scramble to find replacements,” Brown said.

USC is the only high-major school on the schedule until NDSU travels to Minnesota in April. Whatever the case, it’s time to get outside, Brown said.

“The first month of the season can go either way,” he 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