Tod Brown has changed North Dakota State baseball from an also-ran to a contender.
He’s hoping an infusion of talent from Bismarck-Mandan will help to keep the Bison among the ranks of the Summit League challengers.
Three 2012 graduates will by vying for places on the Bison roster next spring along with two transfers from the University of Mary.
Outfielder Aaron Janz and catcher Dwight Mack of Mandan and pitcher Alex Bray of Century are the incoming freshmen. Tate Leapaldt and Jay Flaa transferred to NDSU after playing a year of baseball at U-Mary in 2011.
Brown, who has coached the Bison for five seasons, said it’s not just a coincidence that Bismarck-Mandan athletes are coming on board.
“Over the past couple of years they’ve had some good teams. It’s nothing conscious by us to go to the other side of the state,” said Brown, who was in Mandan on Thursday as part of the Bison Showcase West.
“There are cycles. It comes and goes,” he added. “They’ve had success with Mandan winning state championships (in high school and Legion baseball) and it takes good players to do that. We have three from that team coming in.”
Brown said there’s a good chance all five players will be on the NDSU roster next spring.
“Leapaldt is an infielder and outfielder with a good left-handed bat. A lot depends on his back,” the coach said.
Leapaldt, a 2010 graduate of Century, has battled back problems in the past.
“Bray is kind of raw but has good potential. Janz will contend for an outfield spot, Mack will contend for a catching spot and Flaa will contend for a rotation spot.”
Leapaldt led U-Mary in batting in 2011, hitting .339 in 41 games. Flaa had a 1-7 record for the Marauders in 491/3 innings.
The five Bismarck-Mandan players are preparing to move onto the NDSU scene in the wake of Zach Wentz’s departure. Wentz, a Century graduate, just completed a four-year career at NDSU as a third baseman, first baseman and pitcher.
Wentz completed his Bison career with a .334 average and is the school’s all-time leader in games played (208), at-bats (805), hits (269) and doubles (58).
Brown said the NDSU baseball program is built on a foundation of Minnesota and North Dakota players, and Wentz is a good example of why that’s the case.
“Zach Wentz is one of the greatest players I ever coached. His freshman year he hit .350 in the three-hole and was in the starting (pitching) rotation,” Brown observed. “We would have spent the whole summer (of 2009) recruiting him all over again if he was from California. But he went and played in a wood bat league in Canada and we were 100 percent sure he would return.”
“We have kids here who are 100 percent committed to winning games for NDSU,” Brown continued. “It takes a commitment to play Division I baseball, especially up in the north.”
When he became the Bison coach in 2008, Brown made it a priority to seek home-grown talent.
“I said ‘we’re going to get the best kids within a 6-go-8-hour car ride from here,’” he recalled. “They’re going to be committed and they’ll have that blue-collar work ethic that comes from this state and region. And that was a good group of kids we landed.”
That first recruiting class won 16, 22, 22 and 40 games. Last spring the Bison had a 40-20 record, finishing second to Oral Roberts of Tulsa, Okla., in the Summit League tournament. NDSU, the final unbeaten in the conference tourney, lost twice to Oral Roberts on the final day. A conference title would have given the Bison a berth in the Division I tournament.
“We beat them the day before and put them in the losers bracket and then lost 4-1 and 4-3 on the final day. That was a tough day. We were one run away from going to regionals,” Brown said.
Winning 40 games was a huge achievement, according to Brown. He noted the Bison went through the entire season without a rainout and put together a 16-game winning streak.
“The way everyone looks at it is if you win 30 or more and you’re a northern tier team you’ve had a heck of a year. If you’re a southern tier team and you have 40 wins it’s a hell of a year,” Brown said.
Brown, who recently signed a three-year contract, said the Bison will start the 2013 season with a solid pitching foundation.
“We’ve got half of our lineup coming back and most of the pitching staff — 1-2-3 in the rotation and 1-2-3 in the bullpen,” he said. “Lineup-wise we have to replace our shortstop who was as four-year starter and our RBI guys — the 3-4-5 hitters.”
Winning the big one
Athletic Director Gene Taylor said North Dakota State’s national football championship has had wide-ranging positive effects.
Because football and basketball are such high-profile collegiate sports, Taylor said success there really puts a school on the map.
“Football gets such recognition locally and regionally that even recruits in other sports already know about us,” Taylor said. “Other coaches will tell you they continue to benefit from that football championship.”
Taylor said the positive spinoff goes beyond the realm of athletics.
“It’s helped admissions interest in NDSU, too,” he said.
Taylor, in his 12th year as director of Bison athletics, has shepherded the school through the move from Division II to Division I.
“When I got there in 2001 we were Division II,” he recalled. “In August of 2002 we made the announcement and we started the transition in the 2003-04 academic year.”
Taylor said Bison athletics got a big lift when three teams qualified in NDSU’s first year of Division I playoff eligibility. The volleyball, men’s basketball and softball teams all made the grade in 2008-09.
Getting the men’s basketball team in was an immense achievement, according to Taylor.
“Because men’s basketball gets so much focus, getting in in the first year of eligibility was a story that generated a lot of recognition for NDSU,” he said.
Bison Bandwagon Tour
Friday, July 20
11 a.m.. — North Dakota State Fair in Minot.
4:30 p.m. – Rugby.
Saturday, July 21
9 a.m. – Devils Lake.
11:30 a.m. – New Rockford.
1:15 p.m. – Carrington.
3:45 p.m. – Jamestown.
Wednesday, July 25
9 a.m.– Wahpeton.
3:15 p.m. – Oakes.
5:30 p.m. – Lisbon.
Thursday, July 26
11 a.m. – Hillsboro.
2 p.m. – Larimore.
4 p.m. – Park River.
6 p.m. – Cavalier.