The University of North Dakota baseball team plays its final season in the Great West Conference before heading to the Western Athletic Conference in 2013-14. A young UND squad returns coming off a third-place showing at the GWC tournament a season ago. Several freshmen were key in UND's success last year and they will now be expected to provide leadership for a team that's suffered some early injuries and was picked sixth in a tight league preseason poll.
"We still have some of the same names last year that did a lot of good things for us last year," UND head coach Jeff Dodson said. "Andrew Thome, Jeff Campbell, Sam Alt, among others; a lot of guys that did a lot of good things for us. Zack Trygstad and Kris Kwak had good fall camps as well. But, we've added some talent as well in Tyler Peterson, Jacob Threlkeld, Ryan Reese-- all guys who have made a big impact this fall."
The 53-game slate includes 12 games at Mall of America Field at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, trips to Kansas, Wichita State and the home of the NCAA College World Series, T.D. Ameritrade Park (Creighton).
"We're looking forward to another exciting schedule," Dodson said. "We are playing some good teams and getting to play in the Metrodome which will allow our kids to play in front of friends and family. It helps keep us in class, which is a high priority for our program."
The schedule gets underway Feb. 18 with the first of a dozen at the Metrodome, the former home of the Minnesota Twins and the current home field of the NFL's Minnesota Vikings. The final four UND games scheduled for the Metrodome are slated against in-state rival North Dakota State with doubleheaders on Mar. 29 and 30.
"We're excited about the continued series with NDSU at the Metrodome," Dodson said. "Hopefully, if the weather cooperates as it did last year, we can switch those games back to campus sites."
Other non-conference trips include playing the Jayhawks in the first outdoor game listed on the schedule on Mar. 4. That trip finishes with a two-day stop in St. Louis, Mo. to play Tennessee-Martin and Saint Louis before a Mar. 8-10 series against former North Central Conference foe Nebraska-Omaha.
Two days later, it's off to Wichita, Kan. for a two-game series with the perennial-NCAA Tournament qualifier Wichita State Shockers. The finale of the road swing is a stop at T.D. Ameritrade Park to play the Creighton Bluejays in their home park and the new home to the College World Series.
"The KU, Wichita State and Creighton games are exciting," Dodson said. "It gives the kids a chance to play at the home of the CWS at the end of that trip. Then we play the Bison and conference play opens so it's a pretty tough schedule from there on out."
The Great West schedule opens at Houston Baptist Apr. 4 with the first of four mid-week, non-conference games against South Dakota State mixed in the league calendar. The home opener comes Apr. 19 against last season's undefeated league champion, Utah Valley.
The pitching rotation certainly was the strength of UND's young squad, but some key injuries will open holes for untested players to earn a spot.
"We were hit by some injuries but we've got some other guys pitching pretty well," Dodson said. "Thome will be the ace we feel. We've got Alex Twenge, Brock Johnson and Trent Egan all throwing pretty well and vying for starting spots in our rotation."
Thome was North Dakota's top hurler a season ago as a freshman. The St. Cloud, Minn. native led the team with five wins, 65 strikeouts and a 3.58 earned run average. He set the UND single-season record with 93 innings pitched and fired six complete games-- the only freshman hurler in NCAA Division I baseball to toss three nine-inning shutouts in 2012.
Twenge, Johnson and Egan were all primarily bullpen pitchers for North Dakota last season. The trio combined for 37 appearances and just four starts a year ago.
"Outfield is probably our deepest position," Dodson admitted. "Riley Beck is really coming into his own. He's a fast outfielder who plays great defense and was perfect in steals last year (18-for-18). Jacob Threlkeld and Patrick Riewer are also both athletic and factor in Sam Alt, Matt Wehrli and Mark Bearmon and we have six pretty talented outfielders."
Beck hit .246 last season and made just four errors the entire season, starting 52 games. His stolen base tally was nearly half of the team's total (38). Threlkeld and Riewer are both junior college transfers looking to start right away. Alt hit .302 in 41 starts with a pair of homers and 29 runs batted in. Bearmon made 29 starts and hit .228 with five extra-base hits.
"We've got a couple guys hurt right now and we'll piece those guys together," said Dodson. "Kris Kwak will be an anchor for us at shortstop and second base. Ryan Reese is a great defender at third and swings the bat well, too. Luis Calvo is a freshman, a slick-fielding middle infielder who has gotten stronger from the fall. Patrick Vandoorne will add some depth and Daniel Lockhert, once he gets healthy, as well as Jeff Campbell at first-- We feel we have a great defensive infield."
Campbell earned Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-America accolades last season, the first UND player to do that in the Division I era. He was named the Great West Conference Newcomer of the Year and earned a first-team spot as a utility player on the All-GWC team after a year that saw him hit .326 with a team-best 12 home runs and 47 RBI. The freshman also delivered four wins and six complete games from the mound.
Kwak hit safely in all four games of the Great West Conference Tournament and finished the season with a 13-game hitting streak en route to a .313 batting average for the season. He ranked in the top three on the team in average, hits (65), runs (42), doubles (10), homers (4), RBI (29), slugging (.438) and on-base percentage (.419).
Also returning is UND's single-season hits leader Tyler Follis. Follis led North Dakota with a .352 batting average and 74 hits in his rookie collegiate season in 2012. The team's starting shortstop also generated a team-high 49 runs and had a .432 on-base percentage. His hit total broke the school's single-season record.