Photo by Hillary Ehlen
Bison softball’s Vanessa Anderson thrives in the underdog role.
NDSU softball flies under the radar on most occasions. It seems odd that a team that has only had three losing seasons since 2002 is so widely underreported in the mainstream Fargo media and beyond. Not only that, they have dominated the Summit League, winning it’s conference tournament five years running. Darren Mueller and company have also had major regional victories over national softball powerhouses Oklahoma and Mississippi State the last two seasons. Shouldn’t that have perked up some eyes and ears about NDSU softball? Not necessarily, as they still remain a relative unknown in the community.
For senior first baseman Vanessa Anderson, she is okay with being the underdog. In fact, she’d prefer to not be doing an interview or photoshoot with us. On this late November day, she didn’t have much of a choice.
“I love it. I love being the underdog, I love nobody talking about us. We play the game because we love to play and we love to compete. It’s not about the show and being individuals, it’s about being a team. So I love that everything we do is centered around us being a team and having no games at home, playing on the field we play on, practicing inside. We take pride in that when we go and play top level teams that practice outside year round,” the senior said. “You use that as the chip on your shoulder, sort of blue-collar mentality that we can win against teams that have way more than we do. We’re going to work that much harder to beat those big schools or programs that have more than us. I love the fact that we don’t get a lot of attention. Personally, I don’t like a ton of attention and talking doing all that sort of stuff, I just like to focus on what I’m doing.”
However, NDSU softball has been able to gain some positive momentum and attention thanks to their newly renovated ballpark. What was formerly Ellig Field has since been renamed Tharaldson Park. Anderson has been at NDSU throughout the update and seen Ellig Field at its worst. Now in her final year, she and her teammates will be the first to play in the newly renovated park.
“I’m so excited. I was a part of the transition, so when I came in my freshman year we had wooden dugouts, the metal screen and backstop,” she said regarding the new park. “We got to have a little bit of a taste of it last year, but now it’s fully complete, the outfield padding, the new scoreboard, it’s exhilarating to play in an atmosphere like that and to have people invested that much in our program because of what has been done before us. It makes you excited and really ready to work hard and compete for the upcoming season.”
Softball, like other winter and spring sports at NDSU, is forced to spend a lion’s share of their season on the road. Due to winter weather conditions in Fargo, Tharaldson Park is rendered unplayable until spring. However, the NDSU softball season begins in February, meaning that they must find road contests for almost two full months. For this 2019 team, they will not play their first home game until mid-April.
“I think when you come on campus, you fall in love with the team and the coaching staff. I knew that when I was looking to go to school somewhere, I was looking for someplace that would be my second home.”
For Anderson, an exercise science major, it can be hard to focus on academics when she is constantly on the road. While Anderson admits that she struggled with the balance in her freshman season, she has since found a nice routine. “There is definitely a learning curve. You just kind of have to prioritize, you know how much work that you’re going to have to put in for sports and coming in as a freshman, you might not know how much work you have to put in academically,” she said. “Every major is different and every student is different, but for me, it kind of comes as academics and then softball and then sleeping and eating and then everything else in life. If you have your priorities straight, it makes it a lot easier.”
Despite spending most of their season on the road, Bison softball has been able to be consistently dominant in the win-loss column. They have also routed the Summit League in the time Anderson has been on campus. NDSU has won the last five Summit League Tournaments and has gone a staggering 10-1 in Summit League Tournament games in Anderson’s career. However, Anderson and NDSU softball know that each year is a new one and streaks can be broken at any time.
“I guess when you start each year, last year is last year, yesterday’s home runs aren’t going to win today’s games. You can’t necessarily think about that because every team in the conference is going to be new. They’ll have a new freshman or they’re going to have athletes that are going from sophomores to juniors that are developing just like our kids,” she said. “I don’t think you can really look back on what’s happened, you can only move forward, just because we won, that means they are going to work that much harder and try to beat us. We have to stay very uncomfortable and continue to make ourselves better otherwise, it’s really easy to lose. No one wants to lose especially against rivals and especially in conference.”
Part of the dominant run for NDSU softball has to be how closely knit this team is. They feature a vast array of players who have played alongside one another for several seasons. The Bison also have six seniors on this year’s roster. “It’s just like a big family, now with our senior class growing with a transfer and a redshirt and just the players below us, we’ve played with them for several years,” Anderson said. “You kind of know everyone’s tendencies, their personality and so that helps a lot. We lost a lot from last year, we lost five seniors and so there will be big holes people need to step up in to. I think that our team chemistry if we can have that, everything on the field will take care of itself.”
Anderson knows that chemistry and camaraderie do not always lead to wins. Though the Bison have won regional games the last two seasons, they are hungry for more. The senior provided some insight into how they can take that next step in postseason play. “If we can get ourselves and our team to click earlier in the year, instead of just clicking the last few games in the season. Playing as a team and once we get that going, our lineup will bounce off of each other,” she said. “We have a lot of great athletes that hit for a lot of power, we have we really fast kids, they can do a lot of damage on the offensive side. If we can come together and play as a team and continue to grind every game out because everything is important.”
From an individual perspective, Anderson knows she needs to take some big steps forward in 2019. Not only on the field but also as a leader in the dugout. As one of six seniors, she feels it is her duty to groom the person coming in for her next season. From a statistical perspective, Anderson was one of NDSU’s best offensive players last season. She has raised her batting average each of her three seasons, including a .269 average last year. The Rochester, Minnesota, native has also hit 22 home runs and has 75 RBIs in her Bison career. Her most notable performance last season was in the regional win over Mississippi State where she hit a home run and had a triple with two runs batted in.
“My goal is just to try and be consistent right away. Sometimes you have great games, sometimes you don’t and trending towards peaking at the end of the year. You want to peak at the end of the year, but I would love to play at a consistently high level for the whole entire year. For me, that’s focusing on my job and enjoying every game and enjoying every moment,” Anderson said. “I’m a senior this year, so a lot of it will be leadership on and off the field, making sure that even though we’re practicing and we’re competing, playing, I’m also prepping my teammates for when I’m gone. The first baseman that is practicing with me every day, I’m helping her and teaching her as much as I can. I’m pushing my teammates during practice and during batting practice. It’s all the little things. Yes, performance is important for the upcoming season, but it’s also that I have one year left. I have to help the program and what will come behind me because I will not be here next year. It’s both sides on and off the field, just helping my teammates and if I focus on that and the team, everything will fall into place and happen.”
NDSU softball is one of the few programs that draw in recruits and players from around the country. Currently, the Bison have players from six different states. Surely Darren Mueller plays a part in that, but Anderson sees it a little differently when asked the simple question of “Why NDSU?”
“I think when you come on campus you fall in love with the team and the coaching staff. I knew that when I was looking to go to school somewhere I was looking for someplace that would be my second home,” she said. “I felt like I was family right away, I love my teammates, they’re my best friends, my closest friends, I do everything with them. I think that the huge aspect of camaraderie and being teammates and being family is what gets people from California to come and stay in the snow. A lot of the faraway kids fall in love with the Midwest feel and all of that kind of stuff. They just want to be here.”
Vanessa Anderson may be okay with being the underdog in the world of softball. She and the rest of her team will continue to be dark horses in Fargo and beyond. However, do not be mistaken by Bison softball. While they may be the underdog on the diamond or otherwise, they have the body of work to compete with any softball program in the country. For just a little underdog school in Fargo, that’s pretty impressive.