Photo By Nolan P. Schmidt
The ESPN NCAA Softball Championship Selection Special kicked off like every other show of its kind. The host asking the analysts what they were excited to see in the upcoming tournament before the bracket was announced. The first sentence from former Texas A&M pitcher and Big 12 Player of the Year Amanda Scarborough was one that rings true across the softball landscape.
“I can’t wait to see how the transfers and new faces of freshmen really impact the postseason,” Scarborough said at the top of the broadcast. “That seems to be a theme this year, really impactful freshman and also transfers popping up all over the country. I can’t wait to see the type of impact they make in this tournament.”
It’s highly unlikely that the former Aggies great was speaking directly to North Dakota State, but the Bison have certainly caught the transfer bug this season. One of those that has made a key difference for Darren Mueller this season is sophomore Sam Koehn.
Interestingly enough, Koehn found herself in a different Herd at this time last year. Originally committed to Marshall University, she was a member of the Thundering Herd softball program a season ago. The Altoona, Iowa, native played in 31 games for Marshall and hit for a .192 batting average for a team that finished fifth in Conference USA last season. For Koehn, the circumstances that occurred before her freshman season set the tone for the rest of the year.
“Coach [Shonda] Stanton and her staff were really one of the first ones that recruited me and offered me. When I went, I just felt at home and I loved everything about it. The summer going into my freshman year, we got a phone call that they were all leaving. She and her whole staff went to Indiana and I kind of had to decide if I still wanted to go or try and transfer immediately,” Koehn said. “I ended up going for a year because I knew my class and I wanted to see what it was about. The first year, being a freshman is tough already and it’s a staff you’re unfamiliar with and you’re just kind of thrown into the fire. It just wasn’t the same culture that I thought it would be and I love everyone there, nothing against them, I loved my teammates last year.”
It was after last season that Koehn decided to pursue other options in her collegiate softball career. This time, she found herself joining a new “herd”, in Fargo. “I just thought I could do better elsewhere, so I opened up my recruitment process again this summer. I know Montana [DeCamp] from high school and travel ball, so I talked to her and I called Darren and he got me up here for a visit and I loved it. So, here I am,” she said.
However, Koehn is quick to note that being a member of a “herd” was not on her checklist as a transfer. In fact, she was unaware North Dakota State referred to their Bison as the “herd” until she arrived on campus. “It’s just a big coincidence. I didn’t even realize the Bison here were called the ‘herd’ until one day at a football game, I think they were saying ‘roll herd’ and that sort of thing. Then it sort of hit me, like what are the odds of that happening?” Koehn said, laughing.
Compared to past seasons, Darren Mueller has stocked up on transfers. Right now, the Bison have three in Koehn, fellow sophomore Cara Beatty and senior Maddie Hansen. That is the most since 2012 and the Bison have never had more than three transfers on a roster at a given time in the Division I era. What has helped Koehn in her transition to North Dakota State is the aforementioned Beatty, who also came to Fargo this offseason.
In fact, both Koehn and Beatty have similar transfer stories. Beatty had originally committed to UNLV before the entire staff left, she then committed to Iowa State and coach Jamie Trachsel, who was formerly a co-head coach at North Dakota State. Trachsel left before Beatty’s freshman season for Minnesota. “We’re in the same grade and we almost had the same exact situation and we’re roommates,” Koehn said of Beatty and the transfer transition. “So we got to talk a lot and then we can talk to Maddie [Hansen], since she’s a little older, about her point of view. It’s very helpful.”
Thanks to fellow transfers alongside her, Koehn saw a resurgence in her game in 2019. She bolstered her batting average by a whopping 70 points from last season as she is currently batting .262 heading into North Dakota State’s regional game with Minnesota on Friday. On top of that, Koehn was immediately thrust into action at third base, having played in 55 contests so far this season and starting 54 of those games.
The sophomore has also seen an uptick in home runs, RBIs and doubles. To date, she has hit four homers (including one against South Dakota this past weekend at the Summit League Tournament), six doubles and she has batted in 26 runs. All of those are significant increases from her year with Marshall. Koehn has also been sure-handed at the hot corner with a solid .960 fielding percentage, with only five total errors on the season.
“I would say a lot of it is confidence. Last year, I just didn’t have a lot of confidence being a freshman and not knowing what to expect,” Koehn said of her season at the plate. “This year, knowing and having a year of experience under my belt and knowing what to do. The older girls have helped a lot in talking you through things too.”
Now, in her first year in Fargo, Sam Koehn will play in her first NCAA Regional on Friday as North Dakota State takes on Minnesota in Minneapolis. The magnitude of the moment is still sinking in for the Bison newcomer. “It definitely was a hope, but it didn’t feel real. It still doesn’t feel real that we’re playing in a regional on Friday,” she said. “Growing up, you dream about that and it’s crazy that you’re living it.”
The seventh-seeded Gophers offer up a stellar pitching staff and a Big Ten Tournament performance where they finished runner-up to Michigan. As far as preparing for Minnesota goes, Koehn and the Bison are more concerned with making sure they’re ready and the moment doesn’t get too big. “I know a lot of it is just preparing ourselves more. We like to focus on ourselves and not on who we are playing because often times, you can beat yourselves,” she said. “We like to prepare as best we can. Obviously, with Amber Fiser, she throws a lot harder than we’ve been seeing, so tracking that too.”
Fiser, the junior ace for the Gophers has an impressive 26 wins, a 1.24 ERA and 301 strikeouts in 214.1 innings pitched. She was named the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year this season. For how good Fiser is, the Bison have seen quality, Power Five pitching already this season. Over the course of their non-conference season, North Dakota State has played 10 Power Five squads. Koehn sees that as advantageous heading into this contest with Minnesota.
“They bring a little extra confidence to the table and just the way the Power Five school carry themselves,” she said. “Having opportunities to play them in the spring is huge, just getting used to that pace of the game and that sort of thing.”
Regardless of the outcome on Friday night, the Bison will be met with a tough second opponent on Saturday. Drake and Georgia round out the rest of the Minneapolis Regional. They both have 40 or more wins and Georgia played in the Women’s College World Series last season. While some may believe that the Bison were underseeded, Koehn and North Dakota State are eager for the competition. “It’s a tough regional and every team there is going to be really good and compete and give it there all,” she said. “We’re just hoping that we bring it and we get the job done.”
Moving from one herd to another is proving to be a perfect decision for Sam Koehn. While she still has a regional to concern herself with this weekend, the future is only bright for this young Bison. As Amanda Scarborough noted at the top of the selection show on Saturday, there are really impactful transfers across all of collegiate softball.
Sam Koehn wants to add her name to Scarborough’s list as NCAA Tournament time draws near.