NDSU softball shocks with regional win

North Dakota State's softball team played its home opener April 28. Four days later, pitcher Andi Padilla and the team's other seniors were honored before the home finale.

Such is life on the diamond in Fargo, N.D., where spring comes late and the thrill of the grass is replaced by the squeak of the gym floor. But despite a late start soaking up sunlight, the Bison are doing their best to make up for lost time. After a stunning win in the Norman Regional, including a 1-0 extra-inning victory against No. 7 Oklahoma in the program's first NCAA tournament game, the Bison are one of college softball's final 16 teams.

Next up is a nationally televised super regional at defending national champion Arizona State, with a spot in the Women's College World Series just two wins away for a program that played in the Division II NCAA tournament as recently as 2004.

"I think this shows for our school and the community and the state just how important softball is in that area," said North Dakota State coach Darren Mueller, a Fargo native and alum of the school. "And up north, you don't get a lot of recognition because it's more of a southern and western sport, but I think it just says a lot for the players that have come here and that have been here the whole time just that anything can happen if they just believe in what we're telling them as coaches and the vision we have."

In its first season of postseason eligibility at the Division I level, North Dakota State finished second behind Western Illinois in the Summit League regular season but knocked off the regular-season champion on its own field to win the conference tournament and earn the league's automatic bid. That earned the Bison a trip to Oklahoma and an opening-game assignment opposite a team that won a national championship in 2000 and reached a super regional in three of the past four seasons.

And if the team's aspirations didn't quite rise to the level of scouting out hotel rooms in nearby Oklahoma City for future use, neither did they involve willing sublimation.

"First, our goal was to get to Sunday," Mueller said. "And I really did think we had a chance to get to Sunday. I didn't know how it was going to play out, and Oklahoma, obviously, is a very strong team and beating them was really kind of a surprise because of how strong they are. But I felt all along that if we made it to Sunday, that would give us a great chance, and from there you never know what's going to happen."

The Bison actually trailed for a grand total of a half-inning in their first two games, but that's not to say the road to Sunday's final was without excitement. Beating Oklahoma took 11 innings and two days, the finish of the game halted by rain after 10 innings. The Sooners didn't get their first hit against Padilla until the ninth inning, but it didn't take nearly that long for her to come up with a moment that removed all doubt as to the team's rightful place on the same field as the Sooners.

Not a strikeout pitcher by any definition -- she has 126 in 239.1 innings this season -- Padilla fanned the Sooners in order in the second.

"Once she struck out three batters in one inning, it was, I think, just a huge confidence boost to our team, just knowing that Andi is out there," Mueller said. "The way she was pitching was just amazing because she was just in a zone. Watching her pitch, how she was approaching each batter was something we've been looking for out of her just her whole career, and at the right time, she did it. Just that performance in itself really showed our team we had a chance to do it."

At 5-foot-3 and with a repertoire relying heavily on offspeed pitches, movement and location, Padilla doesn't fit the mold of the prototypical postseason ace. The Californian's 12-7 career record entering the season wasn't the stuff of legend, either, but after both of last season's top pitchers graduated, she made the most of her opportunity.

"I think it's just a great story of somebody who's kind of been No. 3 for the last three years," Mueller said. "And you just wait your turn and when your time comes, you really take advantage of the opportunity. Probably about a quarter of the way in [this season], you could see that the confidence was growing in her. … I think that's really helped her along the way, just knowing her defense was strong behind her and knowing the team believes in her when she has the ball in the circle."

And if Padilla's profile isn't what comes to mind when you think of the kind of pitcher likely to lead a postseason sleeper, it is the perfect profile for the team behind her.

By Mueller's count, the Bison have had just four or five days of outdoor practice in Fargo this season. They practiced inside the Fargo Dome for a few days, but more often than not they've practiced in an old gym on campus, sharing space with the volleyball team and using tennis balls or junk balls to hone the defensive skills that have landed them in a tie for eighth in the nation in fielding percentage.

North Dakota State isn't new to softball. The program has been in existence for more than 30 years, and Mueller has been there for 15 of them -- seven as an assistant and now eight as head coach. The Bison won a national championship in Division II in 2000. But in the rapidly expanding world of big-time softball, where new stadiums pop up every year and budgets rise like a high, hard one from Monica Abbott, they are the new kid on the block -- and it's a block with some pretty hefty property values.

It's also exactly where Mueller and North Dakota State want to be, no matter where they have to practice or how long they have to wait to take the field in Fargo.

"Once we went for this transition to Division I, it was kind of a challenge -- I wanted to see if we could get this program back to where it was at Division II stages," Mueller said. "And that was something both myself and Jamie Trachsel, our associate head coach, just put our minds to and our hearts into, I guess, to see if it was possible.

"Where we're at right now is something you dream about, but you just didn't expect to get there maybe at this rate. You just look at the smaller scale of, of course, winning a conference tournament and getting to an NCAA tournament regional. But to be where we're at right now is something you dream about."

Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.