Photo by Andrew Jason
The Bison softball program began in 1976, and through its first 19 season had cycled through 10 coaches. Softball simply wasn’t working at North Dakota State, as the team would often limp through single-digit-win seasons. Finally, in 1995, Mitch Hanson was named head coach and the program started moving in the right direction when in his first season, the team improved their win amount from four in 1994 to 19 in 1995. But the team was still 13 games under .500.
The second season of the Hanson era marked a turning point for the Bison softball team. The program started to find consistency in its coaching and the talent-level of the players was raised. Maybe the most important piece of the new puzzle Hanson was piecing together was an infielder from Maplewood, Minn., Mary (Gramenz) Kosmatka.
“It was a beautiful school,” said Kosmatka, who was recruited by then assistant coach Darren Mueller the summer before her freshman year. “I knew I wanted to play somewhere, I just didn’t know where.”
Kosmatka was a star at Tartan High School, where she was a three-time all-conference and was all-state her senior year after leading the St. Paul Suburban Conference in batting. There were skeptics around Kosmatka when she made the decision to go to the beautiful school in Fargo, many miles from her home.
“So when I was being recruited, some of the other people I played with – like I remember one of the gal’s Dad said, ‘Oh NDSU, you have way more skill than their team there,’” recalls Kosmatka. “Needless to say, that girl went to SDSU and it was lots and lots of fun to beat the crap out of them after two years.”
The NDSU softball team started beating the crap out of everybody over the next four years, including a 6-1 record against SDSU in Kosmatka’s junior and senior seasons.
During her freshman season in 1996, the Bison won 37 games and had its first winning season in 14 years. Kosmatka was the North Central Conference Freshman of the Year and was named to her first NCC all-conference team – one of the four she was on during her career.
The momentum of the program didn’t stop there. In 1998, the Bison made its first NCAA Division II Regional, where they placed fourth. Kosmatka and the Bison finally won their first NCC Championship her senior year and also won their first NCAA Regional.
The Bison made their first NCAA Division II national tournament in 1999, in Salem, Va. This trip was memorable for another reason for Kosmatka. Her husband, Jason, made the trip to Virginia with some friends. “He wouldn’t leave me alone,” laughs Kosmatka.
Jason and Mary met at NDSU and have been married for 10 years. They had their first child last spring, a future ball player named Abel.
Kosmatka was enshrined in the Bison Athletic Hall of Fame this past fall, but this university is more to her than a place where she played softball and met her future husband.
“The community itself is huge. This school – you get a lot of support,” said Kosmatka. She also reflected on the Easter dinners her and her team would have at Mueller’s mother’s home when the players couldn’t make it back to their hometowns for the holiday.
Kosmatka didn’t know what to expect from college, and experiences like that with her team created a bond that was stronger than she could’ve ever imagined.
“We all had very different interest,” Kosmatka said. “But it was nice to know on the field we were close. We knew what to expect from one another; we knew what the other people were capable of doing.”
Kosmatka moved to Burnsville, Minn., before settling down for good in Prior Lake, Minn., but to this day, she and Mueller share Christmas cards and she tries to keep tabs on the success the softball team has continued in division I.
Kosmatka majored in health development and family sciences while at NDSU, after she experienced working in a group home for older adults with developmental disabilities during one of her summer jobs in Fargo.
Remaining in the social work field as an adult, Kosmatka still has her occasional run in with the Bison while living in the Cities. She admits she still has to hold back from blurting “Go Bison!” when seeing a fellow NDSU alum wearing the school colors. The emotional attachment to the school that allowed her to continue her softball career still runs thick in her blood.
“I literally get so excited, and just watching College GameDay and I’m on the elliptical. I get teary eyed,” admits Kosmatka. “Like, who almost cries while you’re trying to exercise? I don’t know if very many colleges are that way; I just can’t imagine it.”