At a mid-major college athletics operation, perhaps the greatest challenge facing administrators and coaches is remaining a steady contender. North Dakota State has found success in doing so with their softball and track and field programs in the Summit League, but those results have been more difficult to come by in recent years for the university’s winter sports. And while expectations weren’t sky high for any of the three teams this season, a weak campaign isn’t any less disappointing.
The NDSU men’s basketball team posted its first losing record since the 2010-11 season, their last before becoming eligible for the NCAA tournament. The challenge for the Bison in sustaining success has been an overbearing reliance on seniors.
At the end of the 2016-17 season, over a quarter of NDSU’s scoring graduated in the form of Carlin Dupree and Dexter Werner. Fortunately, the 1,740 career points that walked out of the Sanford Health Athletic Complex that year were filled by a pair of 1,000 point scorers – A.J. Jacobson and Paul Miller.
But, at the end of a 15-17 season, the Herd graduated even more production. Miller’s 1,719 career points nearly matches the mark Dupree and Werner left behind. Add in Jacobson’s 1,355 points and over 3,000 points – and 38 percent of 2017-18’s scoring – will not return next year.
This trend will not continue next season though. Barring a transfer, Dylan Miller will be the lone senior on the NDSU roster. Considering he did not even see time in the Summit League tournament, it is obvious that the bulk of the Bison’s scoring will be coming from beyond the senior class.
Spreading the scoring load throughout the squad will only serve the Bison better in the long run. One needs not look further than NDSU’s principle rival and this year’s Summit League champions, South Dakota State, to realize the benefits of depth in each class. Mike Daum and David Jenkins, Jr., a junior and freshman respectively, were the Jackrabbits two leading scorers. The Bison need to reach this roster equilibrium, which they will be forced to do next year, when rising juniors Tyson Ward and Jared Samuelson will provide the offense in the early going.
The women’s team has struggled to find consistency in its time in Division 1. The Bison have failed to reach the success they achieved under head coach Amy Ruley. The .772 winning percentage Ruley posted during her 29 years at the helm is unmatched in the program’s history.
Her replacement, Carolyn DeHoff was unable to build on this incredible success while NDSU transitioned to the top tier. Under DeHoff, the Bison’s winning percentage plummeted to .407. A once indomitable force slipped to an average team.
The blame cannot solely be pointed at the coaching. The repercussions of a down season are magnified at the mid-major level, where one bad year can set a program back tremendously. NDSU’s days as a powerhouse Division 2 squad are far in the rearview mirror, and the program has done nothing but lose in the Summit League. That reputation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, making it even more challenging to win.
Current head coach Maren Walseth has been left to pick up the pieces of NDSU’s regression and its subsequent consequences. Walseth inherited a mess but has been unable to flip the script in her four years behind the wheel.
This past season’s 9-20 record is inflated by three victories over NAIA competition and featured only two conference triumphs. Walseth will need to show marked improvement on her 35-113 record in 2018-19 to inspire confidence in fans as well as her employers. The key in doing so will be to catch lightning in a bottle with a young group next year. One winning season can turn into a second, and slowly but surely the paradigm can change for the Herd.
Similarly, the Bison wrestling team has endured its fair share of growing pains in its Big 12 era. NDSU moved into the conference in 2015 when the Western Wrestling Conference was disbanded. At the time, the Bison appeared well positioned to make waves right away thanks two two consecutive WWC tournament titles in 2014 and 2015.
Like the women’s basketball team, the wrestling team has hit bumps in the road in their two years in the new conference. The team has featured incredible individual talent in the form of now-graduated Josh Rodriguez, departing senior Clay Ream, as well as redshirt sophomores Andrew Fogarty and Cam Sykora. However, success at the team level has proven elusive as the Bison have seen fellow WWC expatriates SDSU, Northern Iowa and Wyoming achieve top 25 rankings this season.
Equal parts maturation and patience are required as the fledgling Bison develop in the Big 12. Head coach Roger Kish may have seen his team take a dip in conference this year, but a 4-3 mark from a year ago shows that he has the capability to take the program to new heights.
With a shaky winter now in the past, the goal for NDSU is to change the narrative for next season.