FARGO — It’s been 693 days since North Dakota State played a home baseball game at Newman Outdoor Field. Broken down, that’s 37 days short of two years.
But the drought that was created by the COVID-19 shutdown last season will come to an end this weekend when the Bison host Western Illinois in a four-game series starting at 5 p.m. Friday. Now comes another trick: NDSU needs to find a way to play as well at home as it has on the road.
The Bison are 18-8 and near the top in the Summit League in hitting, pitching and fielding. That’s a pretty good three statistical categories to be successful.
“We have a veteran group of guys who are used to being on the road,” said senior shortstop Bennett Hostetler. “I think the older aspect of our team has been able to take advantage. You can make a lot of excuses when you’re on the road — you’re tired or you’re sore — but this year we’ve done a great job of not using those excuses.”
Switching gears to playing in Fargo will require keeping a similar discipline, Hostetler said. It’s harder than it sounds, just ask Bison head coach Tod Brown.
Away from home, the program handles the timing of everything from travel, sleep, meals, batting practice and school work.
“We have everything down to almost an exact science,” Brown said. “Now at home we have new distractions and I told them we need to figure out those distractions this week.”
A classic potential conundrum: Is the player worried about his walk-up song when he’s introduced as the next batter or he is concentrating on the pitcher? There are other issues like family tickets and eating after games. Restaurants are off limits to avoid potential exposure to COVID-19.
“There’s a lot more stuff we have to think about,” Hostetler said. “You can’t be playing video games until 3 in the morning. You have to make good decisions when you’re at home, make sure you’re still on a schedule and make sure you’re ready to compete the next day.”
Hostetler has competed, and then some. He leads the team with a .409 batting average with eight doubles and four home runs among his 36 hits. He’s also walked 18 times and been hit by a pitch an uncanny 12 times, which ranks him fourth in the country. He’s been beaned 42 times in his career, which is 14th among active Division I players.
Senior left fielder Jake Malec is hitting .330 and NDSU’s .275 team batting average is well ahead of the .245 it hit in 2019, the last full season.
Having last year halted after 17 road games was motivation enough for several players to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA. Hostetler and Malec are two of them.
“We wanted a chance to compete for a Summit League championship,” Hostetler said.