FARGO - North Dakota State has earned four straight NCAA softball tournament appearances based on four consecutive Summit League tournament titles. That streak is sure to get tested this year, mainly because the Bison are as young as they've been in a long time under head coach Darren Mueller.

Three all-Summit League players are back in pitchers Krista Menke and Whitney Johnson and infielder Amanda Grable. Menke was the league's pitcher of the year and freshman of the year.

"They've been through a lot of big games," Mueller said.

But the Bison lost six seniors from a team that went 38-22 overall and 18-6 in the Summit. It opens the door for nine freshmen this season.

"We actually did a little checking of rosters and we're the second-youngest team in the country," Mueller said. "The only younger team is a first-year program at Lamar University."

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Four freshmen that are being counted on right away are shortstop Logan Moreland from Woodland, Calif., catcher Alyssa Reina from Auburn, Calif., outfielder Maritz Lopez-Portillo from San Diego and third baseman Cheyenne Garcia from Vista, Calif. The Bison went 1-4 in the season-opening tournament last weekend at Northern Iowa.

"It's different because we've gotten used to thinking that going into a game we know what to expect," Mueller said. "Now it's more trial and error at this point."

Head coach: Darren Mueller (12th season, 390-226)

Key players lost: OF Taylor Mortensen, 3B Brea Konz, UT Katie Tamayo, OF Jamie Gay.

Key players back: Krista Menke, So., P (25-13, 2.36 ERA); Whitney Johnson, Sr., P (13-9, 2.21 ERA); Amanda Grable, So., INF (.269, 9 HR, 29 RBI).

Poll prediction: First in vote by league coaches

Best home series: South Dakota State, April 16-17

Best series of interest: at IPFW, 45-14 last year, April 19-20 in Fort Wayne.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

Kolpack's NDSU media blog can be found

at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia