The plan to develop South Dakota State into a solid Division I program was already in place when veteran head coach Dave Schrage took the reins last summer. Now, Schrage is aiming to take a growing program on the brink of being an NCAA tournament team to the next level.

Schrage has coached his way around the Midwest since 1988 with his last stint a four-year stay at Notre Dame until 2010. After a one-year hiatus, he returns to coaching just four victories shy of his 600th career win. He has spent 23 seasons at five different schools, compiling winning records at his last two stops at Evansville and Notre Dame. 

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When Ritchie Price stepped down at SDSU to return to his alma mater Kansas to coach as an assistant coach under his father Ritch Price, Schrage saw a great opportunity and a team that was ready to take that next step. During the interview process, Schrage was especially impressed with the university’s leadership and their progress in the growth of the school’s athletic programs.

“Our president and athletics director had a really nice plan in place as far as how to grow the athletic department when they decided to go Division I six years ago,” Schrage said.  “That really impressed me as far as how they were taking care of the growth in the facilities and budgets -- it made sense and was a good step-by-step process. We’ve seen in the early stages that it has paid off.”

The program was on the upswing under the tutelage of Price, who had been the youngest head coach in Division I. The team has reached the championship game of the Summit League tournament in each of the last three years, falling all three times to perennial NCAA qualifier Oral Roberts. In 2010, the team tied a school record for wins -- a 39-21 mark -- and went 37-20 last year. 

“I’ve been a lot of different places and have had good experiences everywhere,” Schrage said. “It’s an exciting time to come to a program that is growing. There are very few Division I programs right now that are growing.”

“I can’t say enough about Ritchie Price setting it up, and now Coach Schrage has come in -- he’s got a lot of experience,” senior shortstop Eric Cain said. “We couldn’t ask for two better guys. It’s been a really easy transition.”

Schrage is pleased with the foundation that has been put in place at SDSU and is looking to build upon it this season.

“Coach Price did a great job, and before him coach [Reggie] Christiansen at establishing what kind of kids play in this program,” Schrage said. “Those are kids that wear hard hats and bring their lunch pail to work every day. We’re going to play our first 25 games on the road every year and that is just the way it is. Plus, there are long bus trips and you get back and do it the next weekend and the weekend after that. You have to have guys that are mentally tough.”

Schrage is looking to continue recruiting hard-nosed players from around region, and keeping them close to home.

“When you look at the area -- Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota -- there is one Division I program in each of those states,” Schrage said. “There are a lot of good baseball players in that area who want a chance to play and also stay close to home.”

To help recruit those players, South Dakota State is upgrading the field it built three years ago. Next week, the school is breaking ground to begin installing permanent grandstand seating for 600 fans as well as a press box. The plan is to have the first phase of the project ready by the Jackrabbits’ home opener on April 10.

“I’ve seen it change so much,” Cain said. “There are some special things going on here.” 

And, with Oral Roberts -- a program that has been dominant in Summit League play --- leaving the conference after this season to join the Southland Conference, it will leave the race for the conference title wide open. The future looks bright for the Jackrabbits, but there are seven seniors on the squad looking for a title this season.

SDSU boasts six position starters returning along with two starting pitchers, and was picked to finish third in the Summit League’s preseason coaches’ poll.

“We have just enough guys back to be dangerous,” Schrage said. “We’re strong up the middle -- we have seniors at catcher, shortstop and centerfield. Our position players are veteran guys that have been to the conference championship game in each of the last three years but haven’t been able to break through against Oral Roberts.” 

We have just enough guys back to be dangerous.
-- South Dakota State head coach Dave Schrage

“We have a really strong core coming back,” Cain said. “One through nine, I think our lineup is as good as anyone else. We also have some strong arms that were recruited for this season. There are seven seniors that have been through it all -- we’re as close as any team will ever be.”

This year, Mother Nature also seems to be rooting for the Jackrabbits. Usually, the team is forced to practice inside before heading South for the first series of the season.  But with mild weather over the last month, the squad has been outside seven times. 

“It’s been a spring unlike any other,” Schrage said. “We have had no moisture up here and it is been in the 40s. Everyone tells me to just enjoy it because it has never happened in school history. That’s always nice for the kids to get outside.  Last year at this time, they said we had 30 inches of snow on the ground.”

“In the past three years we had not been outside at all before we leave on our spring trip,” Cain said. “The first time we see grass is usually from the bus on the way to our first game. Being a northern school that plays baseball it is usually pretty tough to start off hot at the beginning of the season. It usually picks up towards the end.”

SDSU was swept by Murray State in its opening weekend, but the Jackrabbits are confident they can get things going.

“This is my last go-round at it, and this year I think we’re prepared as we’ll ever be to make a run at it,” Cain said. “I’m really excited about what this season has to offer. It is a great group of guys and great coaching staff.”