It’s a question that has been asked frequently over the past few years in Fargo. Once considered one of the crown jewels of the North Dakota State athletic department in the Division 2 days, is now an afterthought to most fans. NDSU has lost 18 or more games six consecutive years and hasn’t posted a winning record since the 2009-10 season. The most pressing question is simple: What happened?
There’s not one simple answer to that question. Players have left the program, some injured, others that didn’t pan out. That happens everywhere. Fans have dwindled starting in the final seasons at the BSA, to Scheels Arena and now to the Scheels Center, where just 438 fans were announced for last Wednesday’s game with Denver. Yes, it was a Wednesday, yes Denver isn’t very good, but the women’s program has reached the worst level with a fan base: apathy.
When NDSU made the move to Division 1, women’s basketball was the program targeted that could make the NCAA Tournament first for the school. As it turns out, women’s basketball now stands as the last. Men’s basketball, wrestling, soccer, softball, volleyball, baseball, golf, cross country have all reached the NCAA Tournament.
Football has dwarfed all sports at the university for the last seven years and rightfully so, winning five straight national championships, but the men’s basketball team, softball and track teams have had great success on the national level. Those, to a point, have overshadowed women’s basketball, but the consistent struggles of the team has turned many fans from beyond angry to not caring. That’s a scary level to be at for a team, if the fan base doesn’t really care. This is a rare community where women’s basketball used to fill the house and was the hottest ticket in town. Like most teams, when the squad wins, the fans follow and that will happen if this program regains that stature. But right now, it’s not on the radar for a lot of fans.
The biggest thing that stands out is recruiting. Division 1 women’s basketball teams are allotted 15 scholarships, yet routinely the Bison have not used that amount. NDSU had just ten players on its roster last year, twelve this season. Standout players from the area have chosen rival schools over NDSU.
One local recruit told me, “I didn’t want to go to a losing program.” That stigma hurts the Bison more than anything. Over the past couple of years, Fargo’s Lexi Klabo and Edmore’s Fallyn Freije chose UND. Erksine, Minnesota’s Madison McKeever chose South Dakota. Wahpeton’s Tylee Irwin is heading to South Dakota State. West Fargo’s Akealy Moton and Kindred’s Mikayla Reinke are heading to UND. Maren Walseth has recruited her share of local players, getting Sarah Jacobson and Rylee Nudell this year, and will bring in two North Dakota players next year in Macey Kvilvang and Emily Dietz. Fact is, fans seeing standout local players going to rival schools is a tough pill to swallow.
Where do things go from here? NDSU has six freshmen on the team, so there’s been growing pains as expected. Jacobson has been a catalyst on offense. Maren Walseth needs a couple more home run hitters too, because SDSU and USD aren’t going anywhere, and with UND joining the league in a couple years, it’s not going to get any easier.
I asked Walseth at Monday’s press conference where does she think the state of the program is nearing the end of her third year on the bench. Here’s my question and answer:
She says she’s pleased with the progression in recruiting, but at least in my mind, the clock is ticking. Year three and beyond is typically for a college coach with the players they recruit. Walseth has two years left on her contract after this season. Are the wins going to come? More importantly, does anyone notice?