Photo By Kayleigh Omang
North Dakota State has dominated the Summit League softball scene since joining the conference.
Much of their success, which includes 12 conference titles, can be chalked up to NDSU’s dominance inside the circle. It seems that year after year when an outgoing NDSU senior leaves, Summit League opponents breath a sigh of relief. A new era begins.
The last three years in Bison softball illustrate that perfectly. First, there was Jacquelyn Sertic, one of the best to ever pitch for Darren Mueller. A multiple-time Summit League Pitcher of the Year who currently has the third- most strikeouts in school history. She graduated following the 2018 season.
A collective breath was exhaled by the rest of the Summit League.
But then, there was KK Leddy. She only turned in one of the most impressive seasons in school history last year.
Leddy was named the Summit League Pitcher of the Year while the Bison captured another conference title. She graduated after last season.
Yet another massive exhale by the Summit League. This time, that exhale was followed by a gasp.
They forgot about Paige Vargas. A freshman, who helped clinch the Summit League Tournament title with her unreal double-header performance against South Dakota. Many forget that NDSU had their backs against the wall on that Saturday in May. The true freshman threw a shutout in game one and held the Coyotes off in game two. She was named the tournament’s MVP and the conference’s Freshman of the Year.
It was that performance last postseason that gave Vargas the confidence boost she needed heading into her sophomore season. “It definitely proved what I was capable of. Even though I was good in the Summit League Tournament, this fall showed me that I could still improve, everyone can still improve,” Vargas said. “That was definitely a confidence booster for me though. Seeing all the hard work that we did in the fall and spring with traveling, that moment we won was just so rewarding. It was my favorite moment of 2019 by far.”
With her help, the Bison went to the NCAA Tournament, playing in the Minneapolis Regional. A stage of that magnitude can be too big for some, but not Paige Vargas.
“I was afraid I was going to be really stressed out and intimidated by all the hype. Growing up, I’ve always watched the NCAA Tournament and it was crazy to think I was there playing in it. I actually felt very calm and I wanted to enjoy the experience and stay in the moment and be present,” she said. “It was just really cool to think that if you work as hard as we do, you can have those moments and not everyone can say that. It was really special and it makes you want to work harder to get even further.”
That is not to say Vargas was picture perfect coming into the 2020 season. She keyed in on some aspects of her pitching that will help her last longer. With the long grind of the softball season, it is important for pitchers to be well-conditioned. Vargas and her fellow pitchers have focused on that early in the season.
“The biggest thing was learning how to keep going. Last year, once we hit the postseason, we had already been playing for three months and were tired by then. Learning how to keep playing for another month or so was big,” she said. “One of the things Allie [Walljasper] has helped us with is conditioning. We’ve been running a lot, so that will help us not get so tired by the end of the season to help us keep going. So I’m really excited to see where that takes us. Learning how to stay at the top of our game as the season goes on is big.”
Compared to previous years, the Bison pitchers field a relatively young group. There is not a single senior on the roster with Vargas having the most game experience as a Bison. While that experience will surely make her the ace of the staff, Vargas believes all of the pitchers have complementary skills and traits that benefit the group.
“We all carry ourselves very well. We all have different things that we’re great at too. I might be good at one thing, Kara [O’Byrne] another thing, Mac [Schulz] and Lainey [Lyle] other things,” Vargas said. O’Byrne was great in a spot starter role in 2019. Schulz is a transfer from Washington while Lyle is one of six true freshmen on the roster. “Our main focus is to work as a team because you never know when someone will have to step up. It’s not necessarily a leadership thing, it’s more of a team within a team type of thing. That is one of our goals, to work together and try not to separate each other. As long as we do that, we’ll be really good.”
Vargas comes off a freshman season where she won 17 games (to just five losses) in 146.1 innings of work. In those innings, she struck out 111 batters and had a stingy 3.87 ERA. While all of those stats made her one of the best pitchers in the conference from a numbers perspective, Vargas wants to continue to develop. One must keep in mind that she is still just a sophomore.
“I want to keep improving each day. There is always going to be something that isn’t quite right every day. Learning how to fix it and move on from that.
My goal is to try and stay in the present because now that I’m getting older, time is moving faster and I want to stay in the moment and enjoy it, Vargas said of her goals this season. “As a team, I think one of the things we’ve said is to learn and grow each day. We have a young team this year, but the newbies have done a really good job of adjusting and learning what Bison culture is all about. If we do what we’re supposed to do and take care of ourselves, I think we’re capable of a lot of things. We lost a lot of great seniors, but we lost seven and I think we gained seven, so it’s the same amount. They’ll fill the holes really well wherever they are.”
One thing that has Vargas excited is traveling back to her home state of California to compete. Over spring break in early March, the Bison will play in three tournaments in Fresno and Los Angeles. Both of those locations are within driving distance from Vargas’ hometown of Mission Viejo. So her parents and other family members will be able to watch her play softball for NDSU.
“I’m super excited because my parents are going to come and I have a lot of friends and other family members coming. Since it’s during spring break, we’ll be there for a whole week and it’s pretty close to where I’m from.
I’ll definitely enjoy the sunshine and the warmth too,” Vargas said. “When we were at Stanford last year, that is not close to where I’m from so going somewhere that my parents can come is big. I appreciate that Darren [Mueller] likes to go to places where the players are from. So that’s really exciting.”
The secret may be out about Paige Vargas after her postseason performance last year. Vargas is bound to be a star in the circle for Bison softball and will surely add her name to an impressive list of pitchers NDSU has had in the Division I era.
While the Summit League holds its breath, waiting for NDSU to fall off, Paige Vargas and the Bison are pushing forward to the top of the conference mountain.