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North Dakota State one of best kept secrets in NCAA tournament

 

Scott Walters

 

 

The forecast calls for afternoon temperatures in the mid-90s this weekend in Tucson, Arizona. 

 

That is enough to make North Dakota State softball coach Darren Mueller smile. 

 

"There is a stretch during our regular season where we are really put through the ringer," Mueller said. "Lot of schools don't have to worry about dodging the snow showers. It's a little a bit of adversity. Sports teaches you how to deal with adversity. We have done a good job of overcoming all obstacles." 

 

In the backwoods of Fargo, North Dakota, Mueller has built one of the nation's best-kept secrets. 

 

North Dakota State will make its ninth NCAA tournament regional appearance this weekend in the Tucson Regional hosted by Arizona.  

 

NDSU (33-17) will face Mississippi State (36-20) at 8 p.m. Friday (ESPN2) in an opening-round game of the four-team, double-elimination event at Hillenbrand Stadium. 

 

Muller was an assistant coach at NDSU when the Bison won the 2000 NCAA Division II national championship. He took the reins as head coach a year later, and then oversaw the program's shift to Division I membership. 

 

In its first season of eligibility for postseason competition in 2009, North Dakota State caught the attention of the softball world by upsetting Oklahoma to win the Norman Regional. 

 

In that season, weather limited the Bison to six home games. 

 

"We had a stretch where we were away from home for 31-straight days," Mueller said. "It was something like 24 games over that stretch, all away from home. The biggest challenge was making sure the right things were packed and that no one overpacked." 

 

From there, North Dakota State has found postseason play to its liking. Only the 2013 squad missed playing in a regional. This season, North Dakota State won its fifth-straight Summit Conference tournament championship to receive the league's automatic bid. 

 

North Dakota State also won the Summit League regular-season title. Seeded third in the Tucson Regional, the Bison checked in at No. 46 in the final Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) for the season. 

 

"A team with a lot of tradition in a short amount of time," MSU coach Vann Stuedeman said. "There are a lot of similarities between the two programs. It's a team with a lot of postseason experience, so they will be fully prepared for regional play." 

 

North Dakota State played a difficult non-region schedule, including tournaments at UNLV, San Diego State, Duke, California-Riverside, and LSU. It lost two games at each of those tournaments, except for a perfect run through four games at Duke. 

 

In the Summit League, NDSU went 10-3. The squad will bring a six-game winning streak into the regional. 

 

"Our pitching improved in the second half of the season," Mueller said. "Defensively, we have been solid throughout the season. In the last half of the season, we cut down on the walks and did a better job of getting ahead in counts. Offensively, not a lot of power, so we have to slap and take advantage of our speed." 

 

A year ago, North Dakota State finished 29-33 but made the most of the automatic bid from the Summit League with a first-round upset of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma. This time, the Sooners bounced back to put the Bison out a day later. 

 

North Dakota State is 9-16 in NCAA regional play. 

 

Junior outfielder Zoe Stavou leads the team with a .326 average. She is one of two starters at .300 or better. Junior infielder Vanessa Anderson has a team-best seven home runs. 

 

Senior right-hander Jacquelyn Sertic is slated to start in the circle. The Summit League Pitcher of the Year is 25-9 with a 1.62 earned run average and 303 strikeouts. 

 

Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott

 

Scott is sports copy editor and reporter

 

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