Coach Mueller says tough non-conference schedule has made the Bison “more confident”
Coming off their first winning season since 2019, the Bison enter the 2023 season picked to finish in the same spot as last year. Third. The Bison have a rich history of postseason success and know what it takes to be at the pinnacle of the Summit League. While they may have started slowly this season with a 1-5 record, the Herd has bounced back and now hold a record of 16-11 at the conclusion of non-conference play. The Bison have won 10 of their last 12 games which comes at a good time as they start league play this weekend.
NDSU’s non-conference slate was loaded with talented teams, most of them in Power 5 conferences. Of their 11 losses, 10 came against teams that are either in Power 5 conferences or who, at the very least, were receiving votes in the poll. The only other was a one-run loss to UTSA back on March 3.
“I think we’re more confident than in the early part of the year,” 22nd-year Head Coach Darren Mueller stated. “I think the game has slowed down in some aspects for us because it’s a different speed when you play those teams.”
Along with that, the Herd has also picked up wins against some high-quality teams as well. Along with wins over Cal State-Fullerton and Sacramento State, the Bison also defeated (RV) Mississippi State and Purdue just last week which earned the team ice cream because of their accomplishment. In each of those victories, senior pitcher Paige Vargas willed her team to victory as she hurled two complete game shutouts.
“I think this program just has a history of having those big wins,” Vargas claimed. “It just comes to show when you really show up whether we win or lose I think we’re very dangerous this year and if we all are on the same page, we can pretty much beat anyone.”
Over her last 66.2 innings pitched, Vargas has an ERA of just 1.58 and for the season an outstanding 1.74 earned run average, a career-high for the Mission Viejo, Calif. native. For Vargas, she attributes much of her recent success to the mental side of the game along with things on the physical side as well.
“It could be a physical thing, but I think it’s also mostly mental things,” Vargas stated. “I think the more I play the more lessons I get out of playing. Especially since it’s my last year it’s more so trying to enjoy it and stay in the present and whatever happens, happens but I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
Vargas heads a very experienced and skilled pitching staff for Mueller. Also returning for North Dakota State is senior Lainey Lyle. After picking up All-Summit League 2nd Team honors in 2021, Lyle had an impressive 2022 season posting a 2.68 ERA over 81 innings pitched while recovering from off-season back surgery. This season, she is on track with an ERA of just 2.28 over her last 30.2 innings dating back to February 26.
“She’s been healthier now and that’s helped a lot,” Mueller said of Lyle’s recent success. “Having the one game a day was really nice instead of doubleheaders because it allowed us to rest Paige for a day or Lainey for a day. They literally could have a day off, not even throw a bullpen compared to five games in a week and everybody’s pitching, we can kind of control that a lot better.”
The pitching staff has meshed well throughout this part of the season as Piper Reed and Savy Williams have stepped in, throwing 41.1 innings combined thus far. With Vargas leading the charge, the Bison present a daunting task to their opponents as they have continued to improve as the year has progressed.
“I’ve been happy with what they’ve done,” Mueller said of the pitching staff. “I think just the experience (Vargas and Lyle) bring helps make Piper and Savy even better because they can kind of learn from them, but also they all bring different looks and so we can kind of change the look at certain times too.”
Offensively, the Bison had a lot to replace from last year’s team. However, with a big freshman class coming in, a lot of young players had the opportunity to get some playing time. While the preliminary part of the season made for some tough matchups, it gave some of those younger players experience and even a chance to gain some confidence. While Vargas claims all the freshmen have stood out to her, senior Carley Goetschius had a similar response but also had a particular player in mind.
“One person that sticks out is Bella (Dean),” Goetschius stated. “Every time she goes up to the plate she’s like, ‘I got this. Yeah, like I got it.’ As a freshman, I was like, ‘Holy crap they’re letting me have an at-bat right now.’ She goes up there confident and she’s swinging for the fence. Even if she misses it the next pitch she’s still swinging for the fence.”
Photo Courtesy | Rick Claus
Dean has played 20 games so far this season and posts a solid stat line. The Sherrard, Ill. native has a batting average of .250 and OPS of .732 so far this year. She has also smacked two doubles and two home runs while driving in nine runs as well. The infielder also has posted a fielding percentage of .978 while playing first base. She performed well enough to earn the title of Summit League’s TicketSmarter Summit League Softball Peak Player of the Week for the week ending March 12th.
As for the rest of the offense, four players have attained a batting average of at least .300. Anjolee Aguilar-Beaucage, Reanna Rudd, and Kaylee Moore all sit just over that threshold but the one who has separated herself from the pack is senior infielder Carley Goetschius with an average of .389. The transfer from Sioux Falls, S.D., was recently named TicketSmarter Summit League Softball Peak Performer of the Week as she put up a .500 batting average, .571 on-base percentage, 3 doubles, and 4 RBIs.
Goetschius, who also leads the team in runs and doubles, is in her second year at NDSU after spending her first three seasons at Northern Illinois. While contemplating whether to continue her playing career, a former teammate and friend who also played for the Bison, Avery Wysong, encouraged Goetschius to talk to Coach Mueller and play at North Dakota State.
“I talked to Darren and I was like, wow these guys are awesome, they’re genuine holy cow,” Goetschius exclaimed. “This last year and a half has just made me appreciate the game again. I’ve had nothing but an amazing experience here. The people and support and everybody here just made it the dream that I used to have is kind of coming into reality again so that’s kind of been fun.”
After a solid season last year, Goetschius has made a big jump as shown by her statistics. Along with only committing one error at third base thus far, Goetschius has also only struck out four times in 87 at-bats which was a big emphasis coming into the season.
“We’ve been working a ton on pitch selection,” Goetschius stated. “I think this year I’ve just been a lot more patient at the plate instead of jumping on the ball right away. Just kind of waiting for them to throw to my strength and then kind of taking that.”
The Herd now looks to carry their recent success into Kansas City as they start league play. After over a month of traveling to many of the warm territories of North America, the Herd is now closer to home. Despite still having two road trips before their first home game, it’s sure nice to be closer to Fargo and utilize the bus trips for bonding time.
“The bus trips I think are always fun,” Vargas stated. “You get to bond with your teammates better in different ways. Sometimes we do karaoke, especially on the long ones. I don’t mind them at all. I think they’re fun.”
North Dakota State will open the conference season on Saturday, March 25 at Kansas City for a doubleheader with games starting at 12 and 2 p.m. The Herd will then finish the series on Sunday at 11 a.m. before returning home.
In the Summit League’s Pre-Season Coaches’ Poll, the Roos were picked fifth out of the eight teams in the Summit League but have a record of just 5-21 this season. The Bison also swept Kansas City last year 4-1 and 1-0 at Tharaldson Park. The Herd is scheduled to have their home opener on Friday, April 7 against South Dakota.