https://www.gannett-cdn.com/gannett-web/apps/teal/dist/vendor/hls/hls.light.0.12.4.min.require.jshttps://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/sdkloader/ima3.jshttps://www.gannett-cdn.com/gannett-web/apps/teal/dist/vendor/ias/ias-3.5.1.min.jshttps://www.gannett-cdn.com/gannett-web/apps/teal/dist/vendor/adobe/MediaSDK.2.2.0.min.require.jshttps://www.gannett-cdn.com/gannett-web/apps/teal/dist/vendor/comscore/streamsense-18.104.22.168316.min.jsCLOSECenterfielder Landon Badger is one of the top returners on the SDSU baseball team (Photo: Dave Eggen/SDSU athletics)
College baseball teams play their season in the spring, just as school is getting out for summer. When school reconvenes the following year, they have an unofficial fall season, similar to the spring football season so many fans have become accustomed to.
Most players arrive for fall baseball a little worn down. They had their college season in the spring, then most go on to play either in wood-bat college summer leagues or for amateur teams. By the time they return to school, many have played 100 games or more over the prior six or seven months, so fall ball isn’t exactly intense or highly-anticipated.
But this year, of course, has been anything but typical. College baseball was wiped out barely a quarter of the way into the 2020 season by COVID-19. Many summer leagues were shut down as well. When South Dakota State reported for fall practice this year, it felt more like Opening Day than an obligation.
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“It was really different, in a good way,” said Jackrabbit coach Rob Bishop, about to enter his fifth year at the helm. “They came in refreshed and in great shape. Everyone really seemed thankful to be out there and guys were really locked in. Practices were a lot more productive day-to-day than in an average fall.”
And now, real games are on the horizon. The Jacks, who were 5-12 at the time of the shutdown last year, are slated to kick off the 2021 campaign this weekend against Kansas, but weather will likely get in the way of that, while coronavirus concerns continue to hover over every human activity. But that’s one area where baseball has an advantage, at least in this part of the country. If there’s one thing college baseball teams in northern states are used to, it’s never knowing when a game might be called off. Usually it’s weather, now it will be weather and COVID-19.
With players being granted extra eligibility due to the interruptions of the last year, many rosters around the country are peppered with fifth- and sixth-year seniors who are 22 and 23 years old, and those players can be difference-makers. The Jacks don’t have many of them. They’re a young, if not necessarily inexperienced team.
Rob Bishop is entering his fifth year as the Jackrabbits head coach. (Photo: SDSU athletics)
Whenever they end up taking the field, Bishop thinks the first half of the schedule may take a toll on his team at times. But he’s confident they’ll be ready to compete with their Summit League brethren by the time conference play rolls around. SDSU went 28-22 in 2019, which included a 19-10 mark in the Summit League.
“I like our team,” Bishop said. “The talent level overall in college baseball is gonna be better than it’s ever been. I wouldn’t consider us a veteran team but we do have experience. We’ll have to lean heavily on our few seniors and that’s why the extended fall was great for us.”
The Jacks return a handful of regulars in the lineup, led by first baseman Drew Beazley, who batted .275 with four homers and a .420 on-base percentage in 2019, as well as senior centerfielder Landon Badger (.270 in 2019), infielder Luke Ira and catchers Derek Hackman and Ryan McDonald. Ira will move from second base to shortstop to replace Gus Steiger, who passed on his final year of eligibility to turn pro.
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Colton Cox, Carson Max and Jamie Berg will fight for at-bats in the outfield while a handful of newcomers hope to see action at second and third base.
On the mound the Jacks have tons of promise but a lot has to go right to realize the potential. Tyler Olmstead gives them a true ace atop the rotation but is still working his way back from an injury that wiped out all of last year. The senior from Sioux Falls was 4-4 with a 3.30 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 95 innings in 2019. Adam Mazur is a steadily developing right-hander who made four starts last year before the shutdown who could anchor the rotation this year. The redshirt freshman arrived with a polished approach on the mound and has since pushed his fastball into the low-to-mid 90s to go with that.
South Dakota State pitcher Tyler Olmstead missed all of 2020 with an injury. (Photo: SDSU athletics)
Right-handers Ryan Bourassa, Nic McCay, Logan Smith and Owen Bishop will also push for starting turns, while the bullpen is in good shape. Senior Brett Mogen returns, while Beazley will provide innings when not manning first. Eli Sundquist and former Rapid City Post 22 standouts Cody Carlson and Riley McSherry will also be in the mix. Lefty closer Bret Barnett returns after notching nine saves between 2019-20.
The Summit is down to five baseball teams, so each qualifies for the conference tournament, which will be held in Omaha this year. St. Thomas and affiliate-member Northern Colorado will join the league next year.
Besides the likely-to-be-cancelled games this weekend, the Jacks have non-conference series scheduled over the next month with Northern Colorado, Kansas State and Creighton before conference action is slated to begin March 19. Summit League games this year will be broken into Friday-Sunday four-game series’, with a double header on Friday.
“Our talent level is really good, so those first 25 games are important to gain experience and confidence,” said Bishop, who’s added former Canaries pitcher Kirk Clark as the team’s pitching coach. “What I’m more concerned about are the back 25 games. Your best players need to play well when you’re in those games. We need those guys with experience to play well because we don’t want to be relying on freshmen to carry us.”