FARGO — It was so long ago that the five North Dakota State baseball players who used the extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic hardly remember their freshmen year. Since that first day of fall practice were boatloads of hard knocks, fun memories and a ton of work.
The payoff came late Monday morning. The Bison were officially inducted into the NCAA tournament when the selections were announced on ESPN2.
“It wasn’t just about this year,” said senior outfielder Jake Malec. “It’s been the last five years we’ve done this, all the work we put in and it feels so good to be rewarded.”
They were rewarded with the Stanford Regional in Palo Alto, Calif. The Bison will play Stanford, the No. 9 overall seed in the 64-team tournament, at 3 p.m. CST Friday. The other two teams in the double-elimination bracket are Nevada and California Irvine, who also play Friday at 8 p.m. CST. NDSU’s game will be aired on ESPN3.
“Just a special day,” said NDSU head coach Tod Brown. “For me it’s like the birth of my kids or a wedding day, something that doesn’t seem real at times because it’s hard to do what this team did.”
It will be NDSU’s first NCAA berth since 2014. The Bison, 41-17, erased the school record of 40 wins set in 2012. They did it this year on the backs of five players who came back for a fifth year of eligibility, the so-called COVID seniors.
“We’ve been here a long time,” said senior pitcher Parker Harm. “It’s definitely rewarding. A lot of 6 a.m. Thursday conditionings but it’s all worth it with this moment.”
The Bison players and staff gathered in the upper concourse suite in the Sanford Health Athletic Complex that overlooks the Scheels Center. Brown figured NDSU was going to be sent west to either the Stanford Regional or Oregon Regional.
NDSU defeated Oral Roberts 11-6 Saturday night to win the Summit League tournament and the automatic berth into the NCAA. The Bison arrived home around 5 a.m. on Sunday and returned for a strength and conditioning workout on Monday.
The Bison were no pushover in the 2014 regional losing back-to-back 2-1 games to No. 2 seed Oregon State and UNLV. That team took the upset route finishing the season 25-26. The 2012 team lost 4-3 to ORU in the Summit title game.
COVID seniors Harm, Malec, shortstop Bennett Hostetler, catcher Nick Emanuel and third baseman Tucker Rohde weren’t around then, but it wasn’t long before they stepped on campus.
“You think back to when these guys, our COVID seniors, were freshmen,” Brown said. “That was a long time ago. It was a lot of good experiences, a lot of ups and downs and now we want to cash in.”
Stanford will host a regional for the fourth straight time and 19th overall. The Cardinal, 33-14, finished third in the Pac-12 Conference. It last reached the College World Series in 2008.
“Stanford is a great place, I’ve played on that field before,” said Brown, who played at Arizona. “It’s a great venue and a great ballpark.”