Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography, Kevin Folman, Joe Kerlin and Zachary Lucy Photography/NDSU
Written by Joe Kerlin in collaboration with Kevin Folman
It’s dinnertime on February 22 in Tampa, Florida, and the Bison baseball team is sitting in the “Promised Land.” The guys, more than 20 of them, are Division I baseball players with Major League-sized hunger. They’re currently crammed together at tables connected to one another with a bounty of food surrounding them. The scent of endless pizza, meat platters, fried food and a hint of Americana hospitality fills the air as starving student-athletes who have spent all day traveling wait to attack the buffet.
“Golden Corral is a staple of the Bison baseball team,” senior pitcher Kevin Folman says. “We love cleaning house on buffets, and the ‘Promised Land’ is usually our main target.”
Twelve hours before arriving at the Promised Land, the Bison baseball team is in Fargo. They have met at Newman Outdoor Field about to board a bus that will take them four hours south to Minneapolis to catch a flight for a weekend in the Sunshine State.
This isn’t a Spring Break trip. It’s all business. The Bison are 2-2 after the NCAA officially opened the baseball season a weekend prior to their Florida excursion. They split a four-game series with Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas. The Bison are desperate to get more wins on their resume before the warmer weather breaks in Fargo.
Folman, a fifth-year senior, is in his final season with the Bison and is as determined as ever to make it back to the NCAA Regionals like NDSU did his true freshman season in 2014. NDSU’s trip to Port Charlotte to play another northern climate team, Central Connecticut State, is a part of the process to get back to the national tournament.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 23
HISTORY IN THE MAKING
The Bison wake up in their hotel after a two-hour bus trip from the Tampa airport to Port Charlotte last night. It was an ordinary game day on the road for the Bison closer. Folman’s internal clock has him up at 7 a.m. on the nose so he grabs the hotel’s breakfast. Sleep Inn & Suites didn’t have the worst display he’s seen, but he mentions how continental breakfast is always a crapshoot.
The Bison left at 9:45 for their 1 p.m. game. Head coach Tod Brown has given sophomore Riley Johnson the opportunity to solidify his spot as the No. 1 starter. He was given the ball for the first game of the season in Texas and went five innings, but walked six. The coaches are hoping he can tighten it up against Central Connecticut.
Heading into the bottom of the fifth, the top of the Bison lineup turns over while nursing a 1-0 lead. Folman noticed the guys in the dugout repeating their actions. Johnson would walk off the mound and head straight to the end of the bench. No one would talk to him except for the pitching coach Tyler Oakes and maybe his catcher, first-year junior college transfer Sean Noel. Johnson tried making light conversation with the other pitchers but no one seemed interested in going back and forth for that long.
Johnson’s teammates weren’t trying to act standoffish toward their pitcher. You see, something special was happening. He was throwing a perfect game through five. No hits and no walks for Central Connecticut.
When this happens, dugouts usually take notice immediately; routines are set and players start repeating small rituals. Petty superstitions turn into religious practices. For Folman, he noticed he was the first to greet Johnson after every inning. He continued to do so for eight innings.
In the top of the ninth with the Bison leading by two, Oakes told Folman to go warm up in the bullpen in case Johnson hit a speed bump. The starter lost his perfect game but still hadn’t allowed a hit.
“Honestly, I didn’t warm up much,” Folman said after the game. “I knew Riley was going to retire the side in order and complete the no-hitter.
“Once the last ball was hit on the ground to Drew (Fearing), us guys in the bullpen immediately started to sprint to mob Riley on the mound.”
Johnson completed the first no-hitter in NDSU baseball history since 2004.
“It just goes to show you that whenever you step on a baseball field, something special can happen,” Folman said after witnessing his first no-hitter.
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 24
IT’S A TRAP!
There’s not much time for celebration while on the road. The next game comes quickly and a new page is ready to be written in the season. Luckily for Folman, today will start with a proper breakfast at Cracker Barrel with his parents. Folman’s mom and dad made the trip to Florida from their home in Hermantown, Minnesota. It’s Folman’s last campaign and they don’t want to miss a beat.
Folman piles in the team bus with the rest of his teammates just before noon after doing some stats homework his professor gave him before leaving Fargo.
“Coach Brown made the comment that this game would be the ultimate trap game for us,” Folman said. “We no-hit these guys in their first game of the year, which means they will be ready to play today.”
The Bison are humbled quickly as Central Connecticut pushed four runs across in the bottom of the first, then five more in the seventh. NDSU is beaten comfortably and Folman still hasn’t seen the pitcher’s mound.
Folman’s aunt and uncle have a condo in Sarasota, Florida, about 40 minutes away. Coach Brown trusts his fifth year senior enough to let his parents’ take him out that way after the game and have dinner. He’s back at the hotel by 10 where he winds down the night with his usual card-playing crew, pitcher Chris Choles, infielders Matt Elsenpeter and Fearing, and jack of all trades Jake Malec.
“The NDSU Baseball team is the definition of ‘Road Warriors.’ We have started the season with three weeks on the road and add another four more to that before we finally play a game at Newman Outdoor Field.”
– Kevin Folman
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 25
The rubber game of the series has arrived. After an early and suboptimal continental breakfast, the Bison are back on the field at 11 a.m., trying to win the series.
Junior outfielder Jayse McLean gives NDSU the lead in the third inning after belting his first home run of the season. That’s all NDSU would need as they cruise to a 4-0 victory.
Folman finally sees some action in the final inning, shutting down Central Connecticut in order.
In his fifth and final year at NDSU, Folman has allowed himself moments for reflection. Baseball has taken the Hermantown native places he never thought he’d ever see—Los Angeles, Oregon, Arizona and Florida, to name a few. He uses his last day in Florida, a destination for NDSU over the past five years, as an opportunity to hit the beach with a group of guys to grab a bite to eat. These are the moments they’ll never forget.
“The travel may be extensive,” begins Folman. “But it is worth it when you are with your best friends.”
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 26
SO LONG, SUNSHINE
The beauty of the baseball season is, it seems to never stop. The next day comes as fast as a 90-mile-per-hour two-seam heater. The Bison are usually on a plane Monday morning steered toward Fargo. But not when the Bison play the Minnesota Golden Gophers tomorrow, for their first mid-week game of the season.
Folman hits the hotel gym to loosen up his body after yesterday’s appearance. Strength coach Jason Miller has equipped these athletes with workouts for years and Folman pieces together a routine Miller would have implemented if the Bison were in Fargo.
NDSU’s flight is delayed out of Tampa, so Folman uses this opportunity to do some studying for a stats test that awaits him back in Fargo. But not before he and McLean grab a meal at Chick-Fil-A.
The Bison finally land in Minneapolis at 7 p.m. Half of the team is picked up by their parents who live near or around the Twin Cities for dinner. Guys like Folman, McLean, Malec and Bennett Hostetler fend for themselves and fortunately, the hotel is right across the street from the Mall of America.
According to Folman, Malec and Hostetler scurry away to check out the new line of clothes at Lululemon. He and McLean find the food court.
“These road trips show you just how much some guys can eat,” Folman said later that night. “The food court in MOA was dominated by Jayse McLean. The guy ordered a plate of Panda Express and housed that with ease. Obviously still hungry, Jayse then went straight to Chipotle and put home a burrito bowl. A feat like this can’t be completed by the weak.”
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 27
Folman doesn’t need to get up early in his hotel room inside the Fairfield Inn & Suites, but his internal clock says otherwise. He’s up and at ‘em like the rest of the fifth year guys. His stats test tomorrow just multiplied so he needs to be ready for both.
The Bison make their way to US Bank Stadium that just hosted the Super Bowl three weeks ago. Today, they’ll play the University of Minnesota for a second time at the Minnesota Vikings’ shiny new home. Last year, the Bison came away victorious, 3-1, with Folman shutting the door in the ninth inning.
The majority of the team are huge Minnesota Vikings fans. They all remember where they were when Case Keenum and Stefon Diggs connected for the “Minneapolis Miracle” against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Divisional round game at US Bank Stadium. The guys have time before their game, so they debate which end of the field, which has been converted to a temporary baseball diamond, the play was made on.
Last year, Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, native Logan Busch blasted a solo home run to right field to give the Bison the advantage against the Gophers. This year, he failed to send a baseball back to his hometown and the Bison lost 3-1. Folman and his teammates decide to shrug off the loss by giving Busch a hard time about not winning the game for them again.
A bus pulls up next to the stadium after the game and the guys pile in their bags and file on. They’re heading back to Fargo immediately to catch classes in the morning.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 28
Folman hasn’t been physically present in class for a week and in college time, that can be an eternity. He’s made up coursework on the road and kept up with lesson plans through a laptop and a little elbow grease. It’s his fifth year of the baseball rodeo and he knows the strategy behind staying on top of his schoolwork. In fact, he already has a degree in education and is now eyeing a minor in statistics.
“The opponents in today’s doubleheader are STAT 331 and STAT 462,” says Folman, weary from the lack of sleep. The baseball team got back from Minneapolis at 2 a.m. He’s running on roughly five hours of sleep he was able to grab in his own bed last night.
After the tests, he turns in a lab he was working on while on the road. He makes his way to the dining center for more fuel to push him through the day. At 1 p.m., he heads over to the Bubble to play catch with Choles to get loose and prepare for a lift with the team at 2:30.
“Coach Miller and the weight room staff, although intense and always expecting the best out of us, are very accommodating at these mid-season lifts in terms of how our bodies feel,” Folman said. “For many guys, throwing arms can be sore and upper body lifts will be modified to not make things worse. Other guys have the usual nagging injuries that force other lifts to be altered. No matter what, our guys get into the weight room and attack these lifts to keep our stamina up for the whole season.”
Folman learns he got a pair of Bs on his tests earlier and declares the double-header a sweep. Then he remembers he still has an online test to finish before hitting the road again. This time it’s an A. Around dinnertime, there’s finally a moment to relax.
It doesn’t last long. It’s 11 p.m. and Folman is packing for a daylong bus trip to Greeley, Colorado. An hour later, the Bison are back on the road.
THURSDAY, MARCH 1
It’s midnight by the time the Bison baseball team is situated in the sleeper bus parked outside of Newman Outdoor Field. The veterans are the lucky ones when it comes to bus travel. Seniors get their own bunks, so Folman is resting freely in the back. The underclassmen are picking seat partners because they will be sharing bunks.
Folman notes Kyle Ferderer’s preparation. The sophomore scoops up the 5-foot-11-inch Zach Smith to be his bunk partner. Others aren’t as fortunate or sleeper bus savvy. 6-foot-4 Jake Drew and 6-foot-3 Hunter Koep are stuck sharing a bunk.
Nine hours into the trek to Greeley, the Bison stop in the southern Nebraska town of North Platte for breakfast. “We are blessed with McDonald’s,” quips Folman.
They pile back on the bus for one last surge to their destination. They arrive around noon and are dropped off at the field.
The team gets a quick workout in to loosen up their muscles after a 12-hour bus ride. Hitters take batting practice and field grounders and fly balls. The pitchers throw and run. Folman is ready for the Thai food that awaits after practice in a strip mall not far away.
After lunch, the rode graders check into a hotel and have the rest of the day to relax, and in Folman’s case, get caught up on homework. He celebrates completing his schoolwork for the week with a nice steak at dinner before lights out at 11 p.m.
FRIDAY, MARCH 2
The University of Northern Colorado is roughly the same size as NDSU and is located in a traditional college town. The campus rests at more than 4,500 feet above sea level and about 4,000 feet higher than Fargo. The thin air makes any ballpark in Colorado a hitter’s dream. And the Bears are no slouches either. This year, they’ve split series with San Jose State University and Nebraska. They also swept four games of their series with South Dakota State.
Today was not NDSU’s day. In Johnson’s first outing since his no-hitter in Florida, he allowed five runs in the first inning and seven more in the third. It was a boat race and fortunately, college baseball’s 10-run rule was in place and the game ended after seven innings with NDSU suffering a 17-4 defeat.
The mood was grim. As the team packed the bus to head to dinner, Folman piled into his parents’ car. This is the final year the Folmans will see their son play with the “Bison” letters across his chest, and they don’t want to miss a second, even if that means enduring a 15-hour drive from Hermantown to watch their son and his team play. After a big loss like this, it’s best to get away from the game.
The Folmans made a 40-minute drive closer to the Rocky Mountain to Fort Collins. They had dinner at City Choice, a butcher shop in town. There’s nothing quite like fresh meat to chase away the taste of defeat.
SATURDAY, MARCH 3
DOUBLE DOSE OF WS
Today is NDSU’s second doubleheader of the season. During the nonconference schedule, they try to get as many games as possible in a reasonable manner so they’re ready for the grind of conference play, where there are three games in three days.
The Bison must bounce back after their rude introduction to Greeley. NDSU pitcher Jordan Harms guided the Bison to victory in Game 1 with Folman appearing in the final two frames. After walking the leadoff hitter in the sixth, Folman struck out five of the next six batters to earn his first save of the season.
Blake Stockert and Parker Harm dazzled on the mound in Game 2. The two split the nine-inning tilt and only gave up five hits combined. The Bison took two on Saturday and announced to everybody in Greeley what happened Friday was an aberration.
“It’s funny, baseball is a game where you can get dominated the day before and lose by 13 runs then come back the next day and take both games in a doubleheader,” Folman said. “This type of day shows what kind of team you are and what you are made of. We showed that we are a resilient team that will fight when their back is against the wall. I’m proud of how we played today and that’s what the Bison culture is all about.”
Folman caught dinner again with his parents after the game. It was a perfect way to end a spotless day for the Bison senior.
SUNDAY, MARCH 4
The only consistent in Folman’s life right now may be the blandness of continental breakfast. Just as the normalness of the day’s first meal may have caught up with Folman, the emotional highs and lows of baseball may have caught up with the Bison. After such an emphatic turnaround from Friday to Saturday, Sunday was a missed opportunity, according to Folman.
The Bison dropped what could have been a series-clinching victory. After digging themselves a hole early, the Bison climbed back by scoring a run in each frame from the fourth to eighth inning. It wasn’t enough, and they lost 9-7 to split the series with the Bears.
The process continues for the Bison who are aiming for the Summit League title this year. Thankfully, it isn’t won in the first week of March.
Folman kisses his family goodbye at the stadium as the team heads back to the hotel to shower. They don’t have much time until they need to be back on the sleeper bus to head toward Fargo. Slices of heaven are found in pizza boxes on the bus as the Bison hit the road. It’s not the Promised Land, but it will work.
Much like the baseball season, the weather isn’t perfect on the way home and they won’t arrive back in Fargo until 8 a.m. on Monday.
Folman is relieved he will have three days in Fargo before flying to Arizona. But what’s in front of him now is another workout with Miller and more studying. The big picture waits.
NDSU is enjoying a successful nonconference season and Summit League games loom large. Folman feels this team and its chemistry are strong enough to make his last season as a Bison the best one yet.