FARGO — It’s a question that’s not asked very often of a head coach who is approaching 675 career wins and formulated one of the premier mid-major powers in Division I fastpitch softball. What happened?
North Dakota State coach Darren Mueller said this week it was a combination of factors that figured into a 16-29 season and an early departure from the Summit League tournament.
“From injuries to the fact we just didn’t play together as a team,” he said. “Just in practice we would make weird mistakes that I’m not used to seeing. It seemed like nothing clicked for us. I didn’t think we put together a complete weekend all year.”
The statistics reflected the record: The Bison hit only .249 as a team and had a 4.12 team earned run average. It was just two years ago when NDSU went 42-16, won the Summit tournament and advanced to the NCAA tournament that the team hit .304 and its pitchers had a 2.57 ERA.
The falloff is nowhere near where the program was in the mid-1990s when Mitch Hanson took over as head coach and Mueller was his assistant. The Bison went 4-32 in 1994, but it wasn’t long before it became a national Division II power.
The success didn’t stop with the move to Division I. There have been rebuilding blips like the 29-33 in 2017, but the 16-29 mark this spring was perhaps comparable to the 19-32 in Hanson’s first year in 1995.
Last spring, D1softball.com, a national website that covers Division I women's fastpitch softball, ranked the Bison as the 29th best program in the country. It put them ahead of many Power Five programs like Nebraska at No. 31, Mississippi at No. 32, Northwestern at No. 33 and Arkansas at No. 38.
Mueller said there’s a determination factor in play in getting the program back up to speed.
“This is the worst year we’ve had since I’ve been here and it’s not the way the program should be going,” he said. “The nice thing is we as coaches have been talking and we’re getting more rejuvenated. We’ve had meetings with the kids coming back and there’s a little chip on their shoulder. You don’t put on the uniform and win. We’re going to have to put more work into it this year. We had those conversations throughout the year but for the younger kids, they’ve never had a full season. Now they understand what a full season is like.”
Perhaps hurting the Bison most were injuries to their top two pitchers, Lainey Lyle and Paige Vargas. Lyle had arm problems most of the season and missed time with a concussion early in the year. Vargas had health issues early in the year and both missed games because of COVID-19 protocols.
“Having healthier pitchers always helps,” Mueller said.
Adding mystery to the Bison season is they weren’t young. They’ll lose six seniors and to address any deficiencies Mueller said he’s going to take a look at the NCAA transfer portal for a player with speed or somebody with power.
“Obviously we had a down year and maybe we can find somebody who can come in and jumpstart a couple things,” he said. “But it has to be the right fit. We’re not going to take just anybody.”
Mueller figured this season would be challenging considering the pandemic shutdown from last year and managing five recruiting classes instead of four.
“The biggest challenge was trying to get the team to play together on the field,” he said. “I never lost faith. I thought we were going to win the conference tournament because the talent was there.”