Bison set to take on Tommies amidst a three-game losing streak
Through the first half of Summit League play, the North Dakota State softball team got off to a hot start with a 7-2 league record by the time Easter rolled around. However, the Bison ran into the freight train that is the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. NDSU was swept in a Summit League series for the first time since 2021, also against SDSU, in a four-game set. This time, the Bison were outscored by the Jacks 17-3 while hitting just .164 for the series.
This week against St. Thomas, the Bison should fare much better against a Tommie team that ranks near the bottom of the league in most pitching categories. Through 11 league games, the Tommies rank in the bottom three in ERA (5.15) and batting average against (.325). They also have a team WHIP of nearly 2.00 and have walked more batters on the season than they have struck out (143:140).
Those struggles were evident last weekend in their three-game series against UND, where they dropped two of three games to the Hawks. In those three games, St. Thomas allowed 34 runs (11.3 runs/game) on 41 hits as the Hawks hit .418 for the series. They also benefitted from four Tommie errors, who are last in the league in fielding percentage (.923).
On the offensive side, meanwhile, St. Thomas is one of the top teams in the Summit League. They rank in the top three in many offensive categories including batting average, runs, doubles, triples, home runs, RBIs, and stolen bases. The Tommies went toe-to-toe with UND a week ago as they also scored 34 runs for the series and hit .379 as a team.
Leading the Tommies’ offense are two underclassmen, sophomore shortstop Brooke Ellestad and freshman centerfielder Avery Wukawitz. Ellestad, a 2022 All-Summit League 1st-Teamer, has had a dominant season and is in the top two in the league in many statistics, including batting average (.373), OPS (1.084), doubles (12), home runs (6) and RBIs (33). Wukawitz’s combination of speed and power, with 15 extra-base hits and 12 stolen bases, makes her and Ellestad a lethal combo at the top of the order.
Challenging Ellestad and Wukawitz on the statistical leaderboard is Carley Goetschius. NDSU’s fifth-year senior possesses a batting average of .421 and OPS of 1.266 in league play, which is higher than the week prior thanks to her 4-8 showing last weekend. She leads the charge for the Bison offense that sits near the ‘summit’ of the league offensively.
The offense, however, hit a brick wall last time out in Brookings recording just 10 hits while striking out 29 times. Other than Goetschius, no one could get in a groove. A prime example would be two of NDSU’s top hitters, Anjolee Aguilar-Beaucage and Emilee Buringa combining to go 1-16 with 11 Ks at the dish.
In the circle, Paige Vargas and Lainey Lyle gave their best effort last week as they allowed just three earned runs for the series. In game two, SDSU won 12-3 and scored 9 runs off Lyle, all of which were unearned. While Lyle’s scoreless innings streak has ceased, her streak of innings without allowing an earned run still holds at 26.2 innings.
NDSU pitcher Paige Vargas prepares to deliver a pitch earlier this season for the Bison. Vargas is one-half of what is, arguably, one of the best pitching duos in the Summit League.
Photo Courtesy Merced Odegaard
The two seniors have become one of the best pitching duos in the league as they each hold an ERA below 3.00. Vargas and Lyle have, nonetheless, posted very contrasting stat lines. Vargas is third in strikeouts (116) and first in batting average against (.190). She is also one strikeout away from 500 for her career. Meanwhile, opposing batters are hitting .309 off Lyle and have only struck out 25 times in 72.1 innings, but Lyle has been a master at escaping jams.
While each pitcher’s strategy has paid off, they will each have a great task ahead of them this week in St. Paul, Minn. This is also the first time the Bison will play at St. Thomas. The Bison hosted the Tommies last season in their first Division-I meeting where they won two of three games in a series that included just eight total runs. NDSU won the initial two games 2-0 and 3-0 led by complete game shutouts from Vargas and Lyle before falling 2-1 in the finale.
NDSU pitcher Lainey Lyle delivers a pitch last season at Tharaldson Park. Lyle, and teammate Paige Vargas, are one fo the top pitching duos in the Summit League this season. Photo Courtesy | Zach Lucy
The Bison have even more pressure now as they have fallen to fourth in the Summit League standings behind SDSU (9-0), South Dakota (8-3) and Omaha (7-4). NDSU still has over half its league games left with most of them at home, but cannot afford any slip-ups if they want a top-two seed and remain out of the play-in.
After games were pushed back a day, NDSU and St. Thomas are now scheduled to play a doubleheader on Sunday starting at noon with a single game to wrap the series on Monday at 2 p.m.