When the Bison opened the 2017 softball season, head coach Darren Mueller strutted out four freshmen and three sophomores in the starting lineup. The Bison starting nine was filled with inexperience on the diamond in Fullerton, California.
Alone, behind the plate kneeled Alyssa Reina, the lone senior on a three-time defending Summit League Champion roster. What was in front of her was a defensive group that had never started together, including a freshman pairing at second base and shortstop, and a true freshman in centerfield. Fittingly, Reina took the first at-bat of the young 2017 season – a season she will be depended upon to lead during a transitional year in Fargo.
“Alyssa is the perfect person for this team,” Mueller said. Reina entered the season with 159 starts under her belt. She caught for team’s that have lost championship games in painful fashion, she’s dealt with a season- ending injury, won the conference on three separate occasions and was the starting catcher on a team that won 45 games in a single spring. Reina has battled the best in the Southeastern Conference and has beaten a handful of the Big Ten’s best opposition. Her college softball resume is longer than the rest of the roster put together.
“Every year should be a new journey in of itself,” Reina said before the team’s first road trip.
It’s not just her teammates on the diamond who are new. The Bison have three new assistants on staff this season. “Everything is really new so it’s more about tapping into that change and really making the best of it.”
Almost everything is new around Reina. What the Bison do have back from last year are two capable starters in the pitching circle.
Junior pitcher Jacquelyn “Jax” Sertic returns after a Summit League Pitcher of the Year campaign in 2016. Jax, as her teammates call her, arrived in Fargo from Sparks, Nevada, in 2015. She began her career as the second option behind the highly touted senior Krista Menke. In her number two role, Jax flourished becoming somewhat of an aberration for Mueller and his staff. She went 11-5 with 3.57 earned run average and struck out 77 as a freshman.
“She’s a processor,” Reina said. “She’s one that’s not afraid to do something wrong if that means getting it right later. There’s always that excitement when that lightbulb clicks.”
Jax was the brightest bulb on the pitching staff last year. She was far and away the best pitcher in the conference and collected 24 wins, gobbled up over 210 innings and 216 strikeouts.
She is also renowned around the softball team for her positive attitude. Reina has grown an appreciation for Jax’s ability to find a positive in the day even if she didn’t pitch to her high standards.
Last season was supposed to be a transitional year for the pitching staff. The lineup was cluttered with veterans who were expected to lead. Jax, with the help of true freshman Kaitlyn “KK” Leddy, added the extra youthful juice from the pitching circle and the Bison didn’t miss a beat.
KK, who earned her nickname by striking people out, is entering her sophomore season after earning Summit League Tournament MVP last year. She stepped into high-pressure moments during the tournament, receiving two victories in relief duty for Jax.
“She’s more vocal and fiery, like spunky. Almost more vocal than Krista (Menke) was,” Reina said of KK. “She’s always talking things through with me so I’m always there for both of them. She’s (KK) working on some new stuff and is picking away.”
KK has also been picking away at rehabilitating an arm injury that has handicapped her the last two fall seasons. For four months, KK didn’t pick up a softball this offseason.
The time off gave KK the opportunity to work on her mental approach to the game and re-examine her mechanics. What culminated was a new pitch – the drop-ball, a notoriously difficult pitch that dives toward the dirt as it reaches the batters’ box. This pitch offers a completely different look to college hitters, who have grown accustomed to seeing the ball rise with pitches like the rise-ball.
“The key is the pitching,” Mueller said. “Knowing that we have Jax and KK on the mound, seeing them both grow this year and Beth (Spoehr) has done a good job with them and really their work ethic has been phenomenal.”
Assistant coach Beth Spoehr can be added to the list of what’s new around the softball program. Spoehr was the head coach for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay for the last two seasons. She’s been brought in by Mueller to work with Jax and KK.
“She’s so smart and I love that she’s not afraid to keep learning,” Jax said of her new coach. “She’s a great addition to this team, she’s taught me so much.”
Jax and KK will need all the knowledge they can get if they want to lead the Bison along with Reina this season.
“We’ve been working hard this whole January so I think we’re starting to find our identity as a team,” KK said. “We’re really young so I think we’re all just eager to finally get out on the field and get into some nice weather.”
NDSU has become a nightmare for Summit League hitters for nearly a decade. With the return of Jax and KK, the Bison are back to being a black hole for opposing lineups as they pick their poison with NDSU’s dynamic duo.
The Bison are looking to make it four consecutive Summit League titles this spring, and the pressure will rest on the shoulders of the two players in the pitching circle. Thankfully, Reina will be the backstop to rein in the young arms whenever needed.