Photos By Nolan P. Schmidt
Like many prospective students wanting to attend North Dakota State University, Aba Turner was attracted to the academic standing of the school. She wanted to go into engineering and with NDSU being one of the premier schools in the nation for engineering, it seemed like an easy selection.
While Turner was an all-conference softball selection in high school, she believed her softball days were complete. Her career at Jackson Country Central High School saw her hit for a .379 average with 16 RBIs in her senior season. However, academics came before softball and the same applied to her college decision. Turner chose NDSU under the impression that she would only be a student and not a student-athlete.
That was before Turner took another shot at softball. Hearing about an open tryout, Turner opted to show up and attempt to make Darren Mueller’s roster. Her expectations were just that, to try and see what happens. What ended up happening is Turner proving herself to be a Division I talent on the diamond. She was asked to join the softball program after a series of tryouts.
“First and foremost for me was an education just because I’ve always liked school, as nerdy as that sounds. I knew I wanted to go to school and go to a good school and get an engineering degree. I looked all around the Midwest and a couple of schools in Colorado and NDSU was the most affordable and it had a super good program,” Turner said of her decision to attend NDSU. “Then, I found out about their softball team, which was also super good. I reached out to Darren [Mueller] the summer after I graduated. I was just wondering about tryouts because other schools hold open tryouts, but they’re just not advertised. I figured I’ll try and whatever happens, happens. If I do make it that would be awesome and I’ll love every second of it. Obviously, if I didn’t make it, I’m still here for an education. I’m still here to better myself otherwise, but it originally came down to getting an education. NDSU has definitely exceeded my expectations so far for that part and playing softball is a nice bonus added to that.”
Turner made contact with head softball coach Darren Mueller before coming to NDSU. Asking about open tryouts, Turner was able to get her name in the mind of the Bison coaching staff. The next step was having a strong performance at that tryout, but the sophomore was in awe of the program’s success originally. That, the culture and a little push from her mother, is what sold her on trying out for the Bison.
“I just felt like I couldn’t pass on the opportunity. I loved softball in high school, I loved everything about it. I loved the games, I loved winning, I even liked losing just because I got to play. I did want to continue that. I was not great about the whole recruiting process in high school because I definitely pushed a lot of that off. I thought if I wanted to keep playing softball, I got to figure this out,” Turner said. “It ended up becoming a big leap, I think. I talked to my mom and she asked me, ‘What are you like if you aren’t playing softball? How do you see yourself?’ and I didn’t know. I kept checking online literally every single day just refreshing and waiting for them to say what day tryouts were. It just got me more hyped up to do it too.”
The tryouts were scheduled a few weeks into the softball season last year. Turner arrived at the tryout along with three other hopefuls. “I took a couple of reps at a couple of different positions. That next morning, they called me and asked if I can come back for the rest of the week. They wanted to see how well I worked with the team and see some other skills,” Turner said.
That is exactly what she did. Turner recalls the slight awkwardness of that week at Bison softball practice. “Practice with the team was very weird because obviously, when you go to practice, everyone’s in matching attire and I’m just there in a t-shirt and shorts,” Turner said, laughing.
As she finished up practice that week, Turner received a call from Darren Mueller on that Friday after practice. It was a call she could not believe she received. “He told me that I had made it and that was very cool. I didn’t cry then, but I didn’t even know what to do. Whom do I call? Do I call my mom first? Is it my mom or my old softball coach?” she said, recalling the craziness of the moment. “From there, it went by so fast. My classes had changed, I got a locker, I got my bag and all the clothes. Everything happened so fast, it was crazy. It was a good crazy though.”
Making the team may have turned out to be the easiest part of Aba Turner’s journey. The team was already in-season when she was asked to join the roster. That left her at a disadvantage and a time crunch to develop a relationship with her coaches and teammates.
“The most challenging part was getting close with all the girls because they had started practicing with these girls in the summer. A lot of them came on official visits years in advance. So the current roster knows who you are or they talked for a long time before they even arrived on campus. It was a little intimidating to try and get into that like group. All the girls are so nice and even the first two days I was there they were asking me where I was from and being very helpful,” Turner said of the challenges of integrating into the program. “That helped me warm up to the team for sure. I love every single one of them now, so it makes sense that they’re so nice, but mentally I didn’t want to feel like I was pushing any of them out. That’s not my goal and also seeing their skill level was also intimidating because they’re all so good. They were all recruited for a reason. Seeing the difference in skill level, the pace was faster, the throws are harder and pitches are faster. Getting up to speed with that was another challenge.”
Turner was able to get up to speed thanks to her tremendous work ethic. It is part of what got her to where she is now and she takes that mentality into every aspect of her life. “Go in and work hard. Go and try your best and you can’t help anything from there. Once we hit winter stuff, then I wanted to get better, I wanted to be a valuable asset to this team instead of just an addition. I just want to come in and work as hard as I can. One of the phrases we have is ‘ball out or get out’ and I have that on repeat in my head,” she said of her mindset. “If you make a mistake, it’s okay. You can really overanalyze even the smallest mistakes, but I think if I work as hard as I can, I can’t really control anything other than that, honestly.”
The Jackson, Minn., native was able to pinch run in one game last season against Florida A&M before the softball season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The extended time away from the field provided Turner the opportunity to really dive deeper into getting to know her teammates and the program.
“I think there were some good things because it did slow everything down. I think the disadvantage was not getting those two or three extra months with the team just going with the flow. We had Zoom calls over the summer and we texted all the time during that quarantine time, too. I think it did help. It’s such a crazy circumstance that you can definitely bond over that. We came together over it and I think that was helpful,” Turner said of the pandemic.”You go through a big event with someone or a group of girls and you can get close over that. It was good in slowing things down and to take time to breathe and actually analyze what happened.”
Growing up watching softball on television, Turner never would have thought she would be playing Division I softball. Let alone in an illustrious program like North Dakota State. She recalls one moment in the spring that brought the whole experience full circle for the sophomore.
I wanted to get better, I wanted to be a valuable asset to this team instead of just an addition. I just want to come in and work as hard as I can.
“You don’t have to be like an all-star or anything, you just have to work at it. The first time I walked into the Florida Gators stadium, that is when it really hit me. I was literally there. I watched great teams play on this field on TV,” she said. “I got to play on the University of Minnesota field and I’ve gone there hundreds of times when I was little. Getting to play on those big stages was really surreal for me.”
From attending NDSU for purely academic reasons to playing on some of the most iconic fields in collegiate softball, Aba Turner considers herself lucky. Not everyone gets the opportunity she was given, but she seized
that chance. The payoff will be a lifetime of memories on the softball diamond.