North Dakota head coach Jeff Dodson was hired on June 20, 2008 to transition the University of North Dakota to Division I baseball after the school had spent the previous fifty years competing at the Division II level. Coach Dodson spent the previous five seasons as an assistant coach at Southeast Missouri State, where he was the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator. The College Baseball Blog had the opportunity to talk with Coach Dodson and ask him about the specific challenges he faces as a first time head coach and with the transition process, the 2009 baseball team and staff, and the future of Fighting Sioux baseball.
Colin Weber: Being a first-time head coach at the Division I level, what you learned
through the first 21 games of the season?
Jeff Dodson: “I think the biggest thing is the game does not change, no matter what
level you are coaching at. We have to instill fundamental baseball in our kids. Regardless of what level you play at, you have to throw strikes, play pitch-and-catch and put the ball in play. Now, being comfortable with those things at the Division I is a big thing because there is a lot more exposure, but once you get use to that, you find out that baseball is played the same way.”
CW: What specific challenges have you encountered during the transition process?
JD: “From day one, we had to instill in our kids a mindset that they belong at Division I. Every player on our current roster was recruited to play at the Division II level. It was clear that there was a doubt at the beginning of the season that they could compete with some of the best teams in the country. But that doubt has been erased by beating some very good teams and competing at a high level in games where we fell a little short.”
CW: You only have two seniors on your roster, do you feel this was an ideal time for the transition to take place? Does the reliance on so many younger players make the transition more complicated?
JD: “I think it was a great time for the transition because it has given our younger kids a chance to get on the field and work through some nerves and mistakes. This season has prepared them for their future in the Great West Conference in the years to come. I feel that our young guys, especially our sophomore class, have fully accepted where we are and where we are going. They see that this program is headed in the right direction and they have bought into our philosophy 100 percent.”
CW: You team has yet to play a home game this season, what are the challenges with playing so many road games to open the campaign?
JD: “We are going to log about 20,000 travel miles this year and the biggest problem with that is keeping our kids in class. I have been impressed with how hard they work in order to get extra study hours while we are on the road and even when we are at home. We have maintained a team GPA of 3.0 through all of this and that is one of the most impressive things about this group of young men.
“Our kids have also done a great job with the conditioning aspect of our program to keep from being fatigued after a couple of lengthy bus trips that we have taken.”
CW: What are your goals for the program this season and going forward?
JD: “We set some goals at the beginning of the year that we felt like were attainable. Those ranged from as simple as getting our first win to as hard as getting a series sweep and everything in between. We have accomplished all of our goals except for the series sweep, which is a tough thing to do even with an established Division I program. Those goals were reached despite playing an ultra tough schedule and doing it all on the road so far.
“As for going forward, the recruiting class we have signed for 2010 so far is probably the best class that a program I have been involved with has ever signed. With our returning young players, the players we have
signed and hopefully the addition of a couple of more arms, we feel like we will be able to reach next year’s goal of playing for a Great West Championship.”
CW: The current schedule has a majority of the games away from Kraft Field with a mixture of Division I, Division II, Division III and NAIA opponents. In the future, do you have plans to phase out some of those smaller schools and bulk up your home schedule at the end of the year?
JD: “Being an independent school from the North, it is tough to schedule home games, however, our conference schedule next season will allow us to bring schools into Kraft Field see us play at home. We are allowed four non-Division I games and we will continue to fill those with schools in the area that play at all levels in order to keep some long-standing rivalries in tact.”
CW: Jake Magner is off to a great start, leading the offense in nearly every major category. Can you talk about his offensive leadership and what he means to the team?
JD: “Jake showed us early on this fall that he was a great hitter and I think making the move to first base has helped him out a lot as well. He has been our most consistent hitter and has a number of big hits for us already this year. One thing he has done this season is establish himself as a legitimate Division I hitter. He came up with two-game winning hits in the ninth inning against Missouri State and Creighton, which are two of the upper-tier teams in the Missouri Valley Conference.”
CW: Talk about your coaching staff and how they have helped you in your first year at North Dakota.
JD: “I am fortunate to have three young assistant coaches (J.C. Field, Brian DeVillers, Eric Hoffmann), who each have great backgrounds in college baseball. All three of them played the game at the college level and have great passion and energy for the game. These guys really relate well to our kids both on and off the field. They provide great insight into what it takes to go to the field everyday and be prepared to play.
CW: Has it been difficult selling potential recruits on coming to North Dakota to play baseball?
JD: “Actually, our staff has found it relatively easy to recruit quality players simply because this is a state university with great academics, a fantastic campus and a community that embraces not only our baseball team, but all of our athletic teams.
“The guys that we have recruited also feel like they have a tremendous opportunity to play against schools from the Big XII and Missouri Valley conferences as well as standing out in front of professional scouts at a
number of venues. This is a great situation for kids to come in and have an immediate impact and help be a part of building a quality Division I program.”
Special thanks to Ryan Powell of North Dakota media relations for arranging the interview and providing pictures.