Dave Ouellette watched nearly every Badlands Big Sticks home game in the baseball team’s inaugural season.
Ouellette, a Dickinson businessman who owns Yum Froyo & More and other businesses, could often be found on the concourse at Dakota Community Bank & Trust Ballpark last summer manning the popular soft-serve ice cream stand.
“I basically hand-served those cones all summer at most every game,” Ouellette said.
The Big Sticks compete in the Expedition League, the United States’ newest collegiate wood-bat summer league comprised of college baseball players from throughout the country.
While there were early uncertainties coming into the season about what the team and the league would be like, most apprehension faded fast as the Big Sticks went from hosting 400 fans in their home opener to regularly selling more than 1,000 tickets a game by the end of the summer.
Big Sticks games became a summer entertainment hub in Dickinson and good baseball followed as well, as they won the Lewis Division and finished in second place in the league, falling to Western Nebraska in the league championship.
The more Ouellette watched, the more he liked what he saw. So much so that he decided to buy the team from Expedition League President Steve Wagner.
“It was brought to my attention that everybody involved in the organization felt like it was imperative that we had a local owner who was involved in the day-to-day decision-making,” he said. “It happened over the fall and winter. I started getting more interested in it, talking about it and finally took the leap. Indeed, it’s been a lot more work than I ever anticipated, but it’s a lot of fun too. I’m looking forward to it.”
The Big Sticks opened their season with a 6-3 road win over the Pierre Trappers on Friday, May 24. Their home opener on Tuesday, May 28, against the Hub City Hotshots starts a seven-game homestand.
Big Sticks General Manager Jason Watson said having a local owner in Ouellette has been the biggest difference between the team’s first season and this year. Community involvement and partnerships have increased, as has the team’s profile among its target audience — young families and kids.
“We want to win games, but every single fan that comes to the game, we want them to enjoy it and be able to take the family to the ballpark,” Watson said.
That means having national sporting event entertainment acts in between innings — such as Tyler’s Amazing Act, Zooperstars, and the Halftime Dogs Flying Disc Show — and fielding a team that features more high-level baseball talent.
The Big Sticks plan to have 17 NCAA Division I players on their 35-man roster this summer. Some of those players, however, won’t join the team until after their college seasons are complete. That wait could stretch into mid-June.
“Last year, nobody really knew what to expect,” Watson said. “I think the talent on the field really exceeded expectations — including mine. I think this year we have an even better team. That’s going to be that way across the whole league. The talent level is great, as far as a league standpoint goes.”
Big Sticks second-year head coach Hayden Pewitt said putting together a strong team in the offseason was much easier thanks to the connections and relationships he and Watson have established with college coaches around the country.
“All of the guys we got this year, either Watson or I know their coaches,” Pewitt said.
Last year’s team is still having an impact too, Watson said, noting that the first Big Sticks team was so well received by community members that it was easy to find host families for this year’s squad.
“Every one of them has a host family,” Watson said. “That’s been a blessing. … We had people reaching out to us about doing it.”
While he wants to win games, Pewitt said his biggest hope off the field is that the Big Sticks players make a positive impact on multiple younger players. Not only does the team make kids’ game-day experiences a priority with in-game activities and base-running after select games, but the team will host baseball camps and participate in events such as the Swim with the Big Sticks Pool Party this summer.
“That means a lot to kids growing up and can kind of shape their love of the game,” Pewitt said.
At the ballpark, Ouellette said it has been a race to opening day as the club has put a priority on improving fan experiences wherever possible — especially since nearly all of the team’s available season tickets have sold out.
There have been advancements to the concession flow and the addition of new food options. There are more seating options in the beer garden, and canopy and shade in areas that didn’t have it before. Other changes are planned throughout the summer.
“There’s always room for improvement, which is what we’re focusing on right now — trying to make things even better,” Ouellette said.
The club has to be ready because the Expedition League season starts abruptly and goes full-steam ahead until early August. The Big Sticks played their first game the day after their first practice. After its home opener, Badlands is scheduled to play for 27 consecutive days. They’ll play 32 home games throughout the season.
Ouellette said he’s confident the club has put together a team fans will be eager to come out and watch, and said the Big Sticks are in a good position with both Watson and Pewitt back with the club.
“Kids who are going to hit home runs, throw 90 miles an hour-plus on the mound — those are the kind of baseball talents fans are going to want to go watch,” he said. “Hopefully at the end of the year, we’re right there and have a chance to win it.”