Bison softball putting last year's debacle quickly behind with hot start
Veteran head coach Darren Mueller said every detail was scrutinized in the offseason.
FARGO — Just the record itself, 16-29, looked so out of place for the North Dakota State softball program that it almost defied logic. Especially for a team that is accustomed to beating Power 5 schools, winning Summit League tournament titles and making life difficult for opponents in the NCAA tournament.
It’s taken only two weeks to put 2021 behind. The Bison improved to 7-2 over the weekend winning all four games at Georgia Southern’s GATA Challenge.
The head coach in his 21st season, Darren Mueller, hasn’t won 677 games by accident. After a 42-16 season in 2019 that included the team's 10th Summit tournament title in 11 years, the Bison went 7-16 in COVID-19 shortened 2020 and then suffered through last year’s struggles.
“Very motivating,” Mueller said. “It was looking at every single aspect of the program, from looking at myself to every little thing. We needed to get back to where we expected to be. It was a challenge and looking back it was good for us to go through. It got to a point where at some point we just expected to win because we had so much success. It was good for us to get back to the grind.”
Every little thing included outside the lines, too.
“We didn’t have the best chemistry on the team,” he said. “It’s something we focused on a whole lot in the offseason. The seniors have done a really nice job in taking that and running with it.”
Last year’s issues included injuries and absences from COVID-19 protocols, whether it was players who had to quarantine or had it. Rare was the practice when everybody was present.
Mueller also adjusted his scheduling philosophy, putting Power 5 programs like Oregon, Oregon State, Virginia and Maryland later in the season instead of right away.
“I just thought let’s build it up a little bit,” he said. “We’re kind of working our way into it this year.”
NDSU lost six seniors from a year ago with new starters at five positions. Sophomore outfielders Molly Gates (Poulsbo, Wash.) and Emilee Buringa (St. Charles, Minn.) are both hitting over .400. Freshman infielder Chloe Woldruff from Lisbon, Iowa, and Northern Illinois transfer Carley Goetschius, originally from Sioux Falls, S.D., are at .389 and .370, respectively. The team is hitting .352.
“It’s been everybody,” Mueller said. “We have some who have not played much who are hitting the ball in practice and I told them if you didn’t get in, it’s not that you’re doing anything wrong, we just have a lot of hot bats.”
The “everybody” includes the pitching staff, where Mueller is changing a philosophy from years past and using all three of his pitchers equally. Mac Schulz, Paige Vargas and Savy Williams all have at least two wins.
That doesn’t include veteran Lainey Lyle, who is close to finally being healthy. Mueller said softball is beginning to follow the baseball mindset and use multiple pitchers in a single game.
“You’re seeing relievers and closers,” he said. “We haven’t gotten to that extent yet but that’s something I’ve thought about, too.”