Photo By Hillary Ehlen
North Dakota State softball has been privileged in the Division I era. Not only has each roster had incredible hitters, who can rack up runs at-bat after at-bat, but they have also seen some stellar pitchers in that midst too. From Andi Padilla to Jacquelyn Sertic, the Bison have been stingy in the circle, to say the least.
For the most part, Darren Mueller has relied heavily on one pitcher over the course of a season. Padilla pitched a jaw-dropping 246.1 innings in her senior season. Sertic pitched 230.1 innings last year. Both were far and away the best pitchers in the conference and are two of the best in program history.
However, this year seems different for Mueller and North Dakota State. They have their star in senior KK Leddy, but alongside her are two budding pitchers in the Bison rotation in sophomore Kara O’Byrne and true freshman Paige Vargas. All three have proved vital to the Bison’s success this season in the circle. In a recent 20-game win streak (second best in program history and the longest win streak in the Division I era), these three Bison slingers only surrendered 36 total runs. That’s just under two runs per game.
Rather than relying on one or two pitchers over the course of a long season, the Bison have consistently utilized three. As the Summit League Tournament commences this week, these three pitchers will pay dividends for North Dakota State.
Leading The Way
This rotation starts and ends with senior KK Leddy. The Middleburg, Florida, native pitched 114 innings in her junior season behind the aforementioned Sertic. So far this season, Leddy has pitched 174.1 innings, a career high. While Leddy was an All-Summit League Second Team selection the past three seasons, she has moved into the First Team discussion this season.
Having pitched with Sertic the past three years, Leddy learned how to approach each game. Most importantly, she diligently watched Sertic over the course of her senior season and has implemented that strategy to her senior season.
“Being with Jax for three years, I definitely saw in her senior year that she kind of just forgot about records and stats and results and she just played. She took it pitch by pitch and was always in the moment and didn’t let things get too big. That is really what I took into this season, just having fun with my teammates because I only have so many games left so I’m not going to dwell on if I lost a game,” Leddy said. “Yeah, it sucks, but it’s the next game that counts and just learning from her has definitely helped me this season in being more confident in myself and trust the process. Being here with my team is what’s been the most fun.”
While Leddy is not paying any attention to her records or stats, North Dakota State fans and observers are. She is leading the conference in wins with 21, which is also in the top 23 in the country. Leddy is also first in the conference ERA race and is leading the Summit League strikeout category with 165. She leads that fixture by an impressive 32 strikeouts. Perhaps the most impressive mark on Leddy’s senior résumé is the no-hitter she threw on March 14 against South Dakota State. It was Leddy’s first no-hitter of her career and it just so happened to be the first game at the newly renovated Tharaldson Park. Leddy enjoyed it for a few minutes before the second game of their doubleheader against the Jackrabbits commenced.
“It was nice thinking about it after the game, but we had another game right after that, so it was kind of a short-lived excitement. By Monday it was done with and moving onto the next. It was definitely cool, even before the game during the national anthem, I was kind of nervous. I looked around the stadium and realized how privileged we are to be able to play there,” she said. “I told myself and it’s a common thing I say to the team, but in the big moments, this is what you play for. Even if you’re down or the bases are loaded, that’s the thrill of softball and that’s what we play for. That’s what I told myself in that moment, but it was awesome seeing a home crowd and being on the field and seeing it fully done is awesome.”
Another thing Leddy must take into account is leading the two underclassmen in the rotation with her. Sophomore Kara O’Byrne and freshman Paige Vargas have emerged as real threats in the circle. In her final season, Leddy is making a concerted effort to show them the way of Bison softball. However, she is quick to note that they teach her just as much.
“We’re a team inside of a team and we preach that even if you’re having a bad game, we build off each other. We all bring different things to the table, but it’s knowing that you can pitch a game and maybe you’re not doing your best, someone can come in and pick you up. I think we work really well in that way and we have a fun time off the field too,” she said. “Seeing them grow is something fun and seeing the strides that they’ve made. I learn from them too so it’s not like they just learn from me because I learn from them. We’re just like a group of sisters kind of. It’s been nice seeing them grow up and the different things they’ve learned and seeing how they get better each and every game.”
Having three pitchers that can come in and be consistent in the circle is comforting for Leddy. Previously being in a rotation with only two pitchers, having three this season is relieving. “It’s nice having that privilege because the last few years, it’s just been me and Jax [Sertic], so we would have to hope that one of us was on that day. Darren [Mueller] always tells us that we can’t all have a bad day. It’s definitely nice knowing that we can all come in for each other and what we bring to the game,” she said. “Just pitching-wise, it’s different and that is what’s nice because you don’t want all three pitchers to be the same. Knowing that I have full trust in them pitching and that I have them is really comforting.”
With the Summit League Tournament beginning this week and North Dakota State looking to defend their title in said tournament, Leddy knows this team needs to stay focused. A key mantra within the program is not letting the moment get too big. It is one Leddy zeroes in on as the postseason draws closer.
“From a team dynamic, I think we need to continue to not make this bigger than what it is and taking it as a game. When we’re present and attacking each pitch, that’s when we play our best,” she said. “There have been innings where you can see the hitter feed off of each other and pitching feeds off the defense and vice versa. Just being present as a whole and just attacking each pitch because that is really all that matters too.”
With what she has done in her senior season, it will come as no surprise to see KK Leddy on the All-Summit League First Team. In fact, she is far and away the conference’s best pitcher and should be rewarded as such as the season winds down.
An Immediate Impact
Paige Vargas was not anticipating to pitch much in her freshman season. The Mission Viejo, California, product was thrown into the fire in the team’s first series in Texas. From then on, she has been shouldering much of the pitching load outside of Leddy. However, for how fast she was thrust into action at North Dakota State, she has thrived.
“I came in not really expecting anything, I didn’t know if I would pitch a lot, just because I knew how good Jax [Sertic] was last year and I knew KK was going to have to step up as a senior, which she has, she has been doing great. I didn’t really know what to expect, but ever since our first weekend at Texas State, I was kind of thrown into the fire a little bit, but I didn’t really put too much pressure on myself knowing that I am a freshman,” Vargas said. “Just learning how the ropes of college softball are too. I feel like I’ve definitely grown a lot this year, but I just take it one game at a time, one pitch at a time, learning from what I’ve done wrong, learning from what I’ve done right. With the support of my teammates, it’s really helped me so far this year.”
Vargas has pitched 120.2 innings so far this season and has accumulated 14 victories. That is third best in the Summit League. She is also tied for third in the conference in strikeouts with 96. For Vargas, getting into her comfort zone early has been a key to her success during her freshman year. “My first few games I pitched, I felt like I was still in travel ball. It kind of feels the same because, in travel ball, everyone is bigger, stronger and faster which college softball is too. I don’t think I was really pitching like myself until the Auburn weekend,” she said. “Then again, I try not to get too comfortable because I know that even if you let up a little bit, no matter the team you’re playing, they’ll get on you. I’m not comfortable, but I’m always trying to challenge myself and I know with tougher teams they are challenging me. I think that is what has gotten me to bump up my level this year.”
Much of this success is thanks to the lone senior in the rotation in Leddy. Vargas has relied heavily on Leddy in her true freshman season and says they have developed a great relationship with one another.
“She has had a huge influence on me. We got along right off the bat, our relationship is kind of like a love/hate relationship because we’ll say things to each other, but it’s solely out of love. She has really pushed through this year and I’ve never really seen her show anything,” Vargas said of Leddy. “Whether she is doing her best or not her greatest, she is always pushing and being positive. I’m really proud of her because I don’t know what she has done the last three years here, but she has really done a great job and I’ve taken some things from her that I can use the rest of this year and my next three years. I love having her as my senior and even our whole senior class is just amazing, I couldn’t have asked for a better class.”
Vargas, who will be pitching in her first Summit League Tournament this week, thinks that staying loose is a key to postseason success. With their 20-game win streak behind them, Vargas believes this team is looser than they ever have been.
“I really think the secret to our success is just being loose and having fun. Even when we were on that winning streak, we didn’t really think about it, we just went one game at a time, one pitch at a time. We just enjoyed it, we never pressured ourselves to keep it and in a way, I think we’re kind of relieved now. Obviously, we’re upset that the streak is gone, but now we can start new and we can learn from what we did right, what we did wrong, especially in that last game,” she said. “The key is just to have fun and we all believe in each other, we all trust each other, support each other. I think as long as we are all pressured to think about the results or performances and just have fun and stay in our groove, I think that is what is best for us.”
It’s clear given her instant success at North Dakota State that Paige Vargas is destined for a successful career in Fargo. She will no doubt be at the forefront of the Bison rotation for years to come.
Slamming The Door
Sophomore Kara O’Byrne is a key asset to Darren Mueller in the circle. While she has only pitched 41.2 innings so far this season, she has been stingy in a relief and spot starter role for the team. So much so, that she was named the Summit League Pitcher of the Week in mid-March.
O’Byrne went 2-0 in starts that week and threw one complete game. She also struck out six and had a very impressive 0.53 ERA in those two starts. In all, she has three victories to just two losses this season. In her role, O’Byrne sees the importance of having one another’s backs each game.
“It’s extremely important as a pitching staff and it really helps to know that we have each other’s backs. We love each other, we guide each other and we’re always there for each other and we know we can get the job done,” O’Byrne said. “That’s what we work for in practice just to be there for each other. That is a part of being a pitcher, it’s a staff, not you, it’s a staff, all of us together, working together on the mound.”
Like Vargas, O’Byrne has learned a great deal from senior KK Leddy this season. Most notably, Leddy has taught the two underclassmen the tradition of Bison softball. “KK has done a great job of passing down the tradition of Bison softball and the culture and mentality we have,” she said. “The leadership that she brings and energy to practice and games, we’ll definitely take that into next year. She brings a lot to the pitching staff and we’ve learned a lot from her.”
Success breeds success at North Dakota State. The softball program is no different in that respect. However, what is most impressive about Darren Mueller’s bunch is their chemistry on and off the field. That cohesiveness breeds success on the field for the Bison. Hence, why the team is at the top of the conference standings this season. O’Byrne knows that is what has brought them success this season.
“As the year starts and we’re around each other more and more we just start to develop our little things together. It can start with just a handshake or asking each other how we’re doing,” she said. “We genuinely care about each other and want to learn and be close with one another. As we develop those relationships, we make stronger bonds and it translates onto the field.”
With a tough non-conference schedule each season, it prepares NDSU for the Summit League season. O’Byrne and the Bison pitchers welcome those challenges but also do not view those games as more important than a conference game. It’s the same process for each game.
“Going in and playing big teams is just a fun experience. It’s fun going in and having the underdog mentality and stuff, but obviously tougher competition helps you get ready too,” she said. “It’s the same game no matter who you’re playing, you just have to remember that. You attack it with the same process.”
While Kara O’Byrne has not seen as much action as both Leddy and Vargas, she has been wildly effective in her time in the circle. Her ability to come in and slam the door on opponents has given the Bison an asset they have not had in past seasons. Now, she will continue to ascend the ranks as her career moves along.