Renovated facility home worthy of program
When envisioning a softball program that has won nine conference championships in the past decade and has a national title to its name, lackluster facilities don’t spring to mind. That situation, however, is exactly how North Dakota State found itself prior to Sunday.
After a grueling winter, the Bison finally christened their new home field, Tharaldson Park, this weekend with a pair of wins over South Dakota State. Construction was completed in two phases beginning in 2017.
The new facility is a massive and well-earned improvement for NDSU. After years of success, the only blemish on the program was its shoddy field. At best, the field was an eyesore. At worst, it was a hindrance to recruiting and wasn’t fan-friendly.
Dramatic changes have altered the field as well as the seating, which all exist on the same footprint. The most visible change is in the playing surface, which was switched from natural grass and dirt to FieldTurf.
The turf figures to be a massive boon to the softball team’s ability to play more home games. Last year, the Bison’s home opener came on April 28. NDSU only played six regular season games at home that season. The number of home games NDSU plays has frequently been in the single digits. Hosting the Summit League Tournament in each season since 2014 has helped the Bison keep more games in Fargo, though.
The turf surface will help mitigate the drainage issues that the Bison had faced. Because Fargo’s normal winter snowfall is 49 inches, wet infield and outfield conditions are an annual headache.
“I have heard stories from the past when they shoveled when it was dirt. It was a lot harder since the dirt gets muddy,” Bison freshman pitcher Paige Vargas said.
The likelihood that the field will be too wet to play on is greatly reduced with the arrival of turf. The turf drains quickly and doesn’t hold water, allowing it to dry faster. Seeing as how Fargo received 65.4 inches of snow this winter, the timing couldn’t be any more prescient.
“If we didn’t have (the field), we wouldn’t be playing this week. We would be in Omaha or somewhere,” Bison senior pitcher KK Leddy said after the first day of play.
Beyond the field itself, Tharaldson Park features massive improvements over its predecessor. From a viewer perspective, the facility was sterile. Phase one, which was completed in 2017, solved that issue. The metal bleachers behind home plate were replaced by 552 chairback seats. There are still bleachers down the right field line, which make for a total capacity of 735, the largest in the Summit League.
“We have never played in front of a crowd this large,” Leddy said on Sunday.
On a cold day when Tiger Woods was on the prowl at Augusta, 307 fans came out for the first games, and that number should only grow.
Netting from dugout to dugout behind the plate replaced the previous chain-link backstop. A new digital scoreboard was also added during phase one. In total, the facility is dramatically improved over its predecessor from a fan perspective.
Turf bullpens and batting cages were added to the facility, which along with the field itself were a part of the second phase of renovations.
The Bison softball team no doubt earned the renovations with its non-stop success on the diamond. All of this success came in spite of a poor home field. Still, the Summit League trophies piled up, and successful recruits kept enrolling.
“A facility like this is, this is going to open up a lot of new ways to recruit,” Leddy said.
Head coach Darren Mueller finally has a sparkling new home to showcase, which will aid in landing top recruits as well as boosting the program’s profile. If NDSU wasn’t already the top destination in the Summit League, Tharaldson Park no doubt cements that status.
With a new field now opened, Fargo will continue to be the top destination for the conference tournament as well. Hosting the tournament provides the Bison with a considerable home-field advantage. NDSU has made the most of that leg-up, winning the last five titles, all of which have been contended in Fargo.
Tharaldson Park was a long time coming for the Bison. Now that it’s complete, it will help secure NDSU’s spot at the top of the Summit League for years to come.