Life on the road for SDSU baseball

For South Dakota State’s Jackrabbit baseball team, long and frequent road trips are as unavoidable as wearing blue and gold caps.

With a season that opened Feb. 13, heading south out of the winter weather is the only way to fill the schedule.

And while road trips are nothing new for student athletes, it gets a little crazy for the baseball players, who played 23 games in 45 days earlier this season – finishing with a 12-11 record – all before the home opener.

A big chunk of the time spent on the road included a near 16-hour (one way) bus ride to Nacogdoches, Texas, for three games against Stephen F. Austin State University. The Jacks split four games on that trip, including a pit stop in Kansas City to take on MidAmerica Nazarene. Both losses were by a single run to the Texas squad.  

By the time it was over the Jackrabbits had logged over 2,000 miles in five days.

Assistant Coach Matt Bowman said that the addition of the Sanford-Jackrabbit Athletic Complex has helped prepare the team for the extended time away from home, and travel is just part of the job.

“We are now able to take full infields, outfielders can make all the throws and take fly balls, and pitchers are able to play long toss,” Bowman said. “Roads games are part of baseball and more so at a place like SDSU. It gives us a blue-collar mentality, and I believe, makes us a better ball club.”

During a 2,000 mile round trip, for example, one would expect plenty of leisure time. So what exactly does the team do while lounging on the bus?

“We watch a lot of movies,” Head Coach Dave Schrage said with a chuckle.

The playlist has included “Hoosiers,” “Major League,” “Field of Dreams,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Point Break,” and “Troy.”

“Just to name a few,” Assistant Coach Matt Bowman said.

Other than movies, the guys play Team Bus Trivia to help pass the time. Some of the categories include movie quotes, name that song, random movie trivia, U.S. history, and presidential trivia. On one trip the seniors donated prizes, inexpensive things like candy and deodorant.

Senior pitcher and captain J.D. Moore leads the trivia game from the front of the bus with a microphone and makes sure everyone puts their cellphones away so they don’t cheat. Each game takes about an hour and a half or two hours.

“It’s been fun,” Moore said. “It’s a good way to kill time and enjoy ourselves.”

But the trips aren’t all fun and games. With all the time spent out of the classroom, the team keeps up by studying and taking tests in hotels. Coach Schrage plays the role of substitute teacher.

“I’ve proctored at least 15 different tests on the road,” Schrage said. “Some of the instructors want a picture of the answer sheet. Some want it emailed. Some want it faxed. Some of them wait until we get back; I just put it in an envelope and sign it.”

Schrage said he tries to get everyone to take their tests at the same time, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes the bus becomes the classroom.

Marcus Heemstra, a senior pitcher, is no stranger to dealing with homework on the road. He also played four years of basketball for the Jacks. The fact that many classes are online or have online components makes things easier, he said.

“Communication up front with your teachers about when you’re going to be gone and what you’re going to miss helps,” Heemstra said. “The guys do a good job helping each other too.”

This season marks Heemstra’s first full year of playing baseball. In past years he would join the team after the end of the basketball season in late March. He redshirted in baseball in 2013, so this is his last year of eligibility.

For a pair of freshman, Luke Ringhofer and Newt Johnson, long hours on the road is a new experience, but something they’ve adjusted to as the season has progressed.

Ringhofer, designated hitter and backup catcher, said a six- or seven-hour bus ride doesn’t seem that long anymore, and he isn’t shy to note that he enjoys sleeping in beds that aren’t dorm room beds.

“I don’t have to climb up five feet to get in my bed,” he said. “Probably the No. 1 (best) thing.”

Johnson enjoys time spent at the hotel too, but mostly “getting in the workout room or the pool,” he said.

The two freshmen have contributed to the team’s success, playing in nearly every game and each batting over .300 – among the leaders of the team. Their accomplishments have perhaps spared them from at least some shenanigans the veteran players might have tempted to direct their way.

“Some guys give you a little trouble for being a rookie,” Ringhofer said. “But they’re all great guys, great leaders. Couldn’t ask for better seniors.”

Despite that, the freshmen haven’t escaped at least one duty: cleaning the bus after the trip.

While the Jackrabbits log plenty of hours on the road, they aren’t limited to ground expeditions.

The team flew to Baton Rouge and New Orleans for games beginning March 6 against Southern (La.) and Tougaloo (Miss). A game was cancelled by rain in Hattiesburg against Southern Miss.

Stops in Jackson, Miss. and Omaha rounded out that trip, with the Jacks going 5-5 after dropping the final four games in Nebraska.

Another planned flight was scheduled for Feb. 20 in Elon, NC, but the four games were cancelled due to a winter storm.

No matter where the Jacks go or how they get there, the players try to make the most of their time by enjoying the different cities. A seafood restaurant on Bourbon Street was one highlight, except for senior outfielder Eric Danforth.

“I despise seafood unless it’s fish sticks and a lot of tartar sauce,” Danforth said. “I ate about 11 to 13 potatoes instead… Little baked potatoes with seasoning.”

Texas steakhouses were another popular choice.

“The part you enjoy the most is the time you get to spend together,” Coach Schrage said.

Moore, the senior pitcher said, It’s a good way to get closer as a team. When we’re home you don’t really see everyone on the team, but when we’re on the bus for 16 hours it’s a good way to talk about things that aren’t baseball, and then things that are baseball. It’s good bonding time.”

The Jacks finished their winter tour on a positive note winning five out of six games at Western Illinois and Fort Wayne.

The team finally held its first outdoor practice of the season March 31, a sunny 70-degree day with only a hint of breeze.

Then, starting April 1, SDSU began a stretch of 14 games at home.

“It’s nice to play some home games,” Coach Schrage said. “We haven’t even played half our season yet and most people don’t even know that our season has started. That’s the beauty of college baseball.”

The Jacks are 21-13 overall and 9-6 in the Summit League have played their last 11 games at Erv Huether Field in Brookings and are scheduled to play their next four games at home.