Bison Move Into New Role as Preseason Favorite to Win First Summit League Championship
Release: February 14, 2013
After a school-record 40-win season that ended one game shy of the NCAA Division I tournament, North Dakota State is in unfamiliar territory entering the 2013 baseball campaign.
The Bison are now Summit League favorites according to the coaches' preseason poll and multiple baseball publications. The task now is to manage those expectations.
"Nobody's going to expect more than what we expect out of ourselves," said sixth-year NDSU head coach Tod Brown. "We expect to be there in the end, but at this point in time we are not there."
NDSU lost four of its top six hitters from last year's team that went 40-20 overall and placed third in The Summit League with a 14-10 record. Coupled with that is the loss of three infielders including a pair of four-year starters.
"Defensively right now is probably our biggest challenge," Brown said. "Defense and pitching is what we're putting the most emphasis on, and if we can do those two things well, I think we have good enough players in our system to score enough runs to win."
NDSU may have one of the top pitching staffs in The Summit League this year with its top two weekend starters and three late relievers all back. And two important pieces of the batting order are back in the leadoff and cleanup spots.
Here's a position-by-position look at the Bison, who are looking to make their first NCAA playoff appearance since a runner-up finish at the 1969 College Division Midwest Regional:
Straka, an All-Summit League first team pick last year, went 7-4 with a 2.61 ERA and broke a 43-year-old school record with 92 strikeouts. He got the Bison through seven innings in 12 of his 15 starts and pitched four complete games.
Ernst, who broke into the starting rotation midseason after an injury to Bryant Larson, took advantage of the opportunity going 6-0 with a 3.67 ERA in 49 innings. He won the final four weeks of the regular season.
Anderson pitched mostly in a setup role in the seventh and eighth innings and went 2-1 with a 1.83 ERA and two saves. Heck emerged in the second half of the season and finished 1-1 with a save and a 3.20 ERA. He did not allow an earned run in his last nine games.
Returning to the closer role is senior right-hander Kyle Kingsley, who was named to the preseason watch list for the Stopper of the Year award by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. Kingsley went 7-4 with five saves and a 2.28 ERA in 26 appearances last year, holding opposing hitters to a .205 batting average and allowing only eight walks in 43 1/3 innings of work. He was All-Summit League second team.
The task for NDSU will be to find two new weekend starters and some middle relievers. Senior righty Mark Hermes has the most experience with 20 starts over his freshman and sophomore years before working out of the bullpen last year.
Sophomore lefty Parker Trewin may push for a spot in the rotation after missing last year with an arm injury, University of Mary transfer Jay Flaa emerged as one of NDSU's top new arms in fall workouts, and dual-position player Trevor Jaunich may also log more innings.
The pitching staff is young with eight freshmen all competing for spots in midweek assignments or relief duty.
North Dakota State will turn the catching duties over to junior Michael Leach with the departure of three-year starter Tyler Steen. The right-handed hitting Leach made 12 starts behind the plate last year but played in 33 games including 11 as the designated hitter and hit .217 with 10 RBIs.
Left-handed hitting freshman Dwight Mack will see time right away for the Bison in a backup role, and junior Kyle Kleinendorst could be in line for more signal-calling after catching parts of four games as a freshman in 2011.
North Dakota State has been one of the top defensive teams in The Summit League in recent years and last year's veteran club set a school record for the fourth straight season with a .973 fielding percentage. Now the Bison are looking to replace three starters on the infield.
All-Summit League second team second baseman Wes Satzinger is the only returner, and the junior could move to first base depending on his health. Satzinger made all 60 starts last year hitting .305 in the cleanup and No. 5 spots with 15 doubles and 31 RBIs but had a shoulder surgery in the offseason for the third straight year.
Sophomore John Skrbec played third base in 27 games last year but may move to shortstop, a move that could free up Trevor Jaunich to play third base and pitch on a regular basis. Jaunich played three games at second base last year.
Senior Kirk Kenneally has split time at first base and second base his first two years at NDSU.
Four freshmen are vying for infield time including former Omaha Creighton Prep teammates Jon Hechtner at second base and Aiden Hook in the middle infield. Left-handed hitting Paul Funk and right-hander Andy Wicklund are the others.
Colwell was NDSU's first Division I all-region selection last year after hitting .381 in the leadoff spot with school records in games played (60), at-bats (244), hits (93) and triples (9). Colwell had a .438 on-base percentage, drew 25 walks, stole 12 bases and scored 62 runs. He was a preseason All-America third team pick by the NCBWA.
Kleinendorst gives the Bison a power-hitting left-handed bat in the lineup. He hit .221 with 10 doubles, three triples, three home runs and 17 RBIs in 48 games last year, including a game-tying homer in NDSU's eventual 8-2 win at Arizona.
The vacancy in left field could be filled by utility player Tate Leapaldt, who redshirted at NDSU last year after transferring from the University of Mary. Leapaldt hit a team-high .339 at U-Mary with nine doubles in 41 games and drew 27 walks with only 10 strikeouts.
North Dakota State opens the regular-season Feb. 15-17 with a three-game series at Arkansas-Pine Bluff and follows that with trips to Southeast Missouri State, Minnesota and Tennessee-Martin before embarking on its annual spring break trip to Florida for eight games.
The Bison have six more neutral site games in the Metrodome in late March against Northern State and North Dakota sandwiched around the March 26 home opener against Concordia College.
North Dakota State will play a 30-game Summit League schedule consisting of four-game series and doubleheaders against all five opponents. NDSU opens April 5-7 at South Dakota State for four games and has a midweek home doubleheader with SDSU on May 14.
Other home weekends for NDSU in league play are April 19 and 21 doubleheaders against Western Illinois and Omaha, four games with Oakland May 3-5, and four games with Fort Wayne May 16-18.
The four-team Summit League championship will be played at Oakland May 23-25 with the winner earning an automatic berth in the NCAA Division I tournament.