The forecast for the weekend of Mar. 14 in Winona was looking good. The temperature wasn’t supposed to go above 40 degrees Farenheit, but the air would be brisk and the sun would be shining. Not quite baseball weather, but as close as you can get at this time of year in Minnesota.
Suddenly, none of it mattered.
Minnesota Crookston baseball was supposed to be getting on the bus and heading south for the opening series of the NSIC season. Instead, coach Steve Gust was gathering the Golden Eagles in a classroom, in preparation for what would be the toughest meeting he had ever been a part of.
When COVID-19 brought sports to a crashing halt in mid-March, it didn’t just cut short Minnesota Crookston’s season — it ended a season that the Golden Eagles believed held limitless potential.
Three weeks later, Gust is saying all the right things: “It is what it is.” He clearly means them, too: “Everybody in the country is in the same situation, and the most important thing is safety.”
But none of that can erase the pain he felt that day, and none of it will.
There are more important things taking place at the moment, obviously, but humans are capable of feeling multiple types of hurt at once. On that day in March, over 40 young men had the game of their life taken away from them, and Gust felt responsible.
“I just feel I let the team down when this all happened,” he said by phone Monday morning. “Common sense prevails, but when it’s emotional like it was, as a head coach you feel like you’re in control of things.”
Prior to COVID-19, Gust and the Golden Eagles had fully justified their belief in their potential. After dropping their first series of the season at Pittsburg State, they won seven out of 10 games at the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational in late February and early March.
At the time the season was cancelled, UMC was 8-5 with a team OPS of .942 and an average run differential of 3.2 per game. Six hitters — Scott Finberg, Brad Morris, Mason Ruhlman, Brock Reller, Ben Bryant and Ben Thoma — were hitting above .340. Starters Matt Nelson, Connor Richardson and Jayden Grover all had ERAs below 4.00.
The Golden Eagles were coming off a program-best 28-21 season in 2019, which included an appearance in the NSIC Tournament. Gust thought his team could not only get there again, but do major damage. He saw UMC’s 10-9 loss to perennial power St. Cloud State on Mar. 5, in which a depleted Golden Eagle bullpen faced a fresh Huskies staff, as a bellwether.
“They dealt with (the season cancellation) well,” Gust said. “But the emotion was pretty heartbreaking. That’s the only word I can use.”
But initial reactions naturally subside. After a while, people move on.
And with the first wave of emotion having crested, the positive momentum Minnesota Crookston built this season is already helping to shape what comes next.
Gust and his staff have been busy the last two weeks, sorting out what the roster will look like next season. The NCAA granted spring sport athletes an extra year of eligibility, and while some seniors, such as closer Dalton Grose, have jobs lined up, Gust thinks the vast majority of them — “75 percent” or higher — will be back in 2021, having found additional majors or minors to pick up.
“Those guys bounce back easily, and a couple weeks later we got a chance to talk to them, they’re looking forward to possibly coming back,” Gust said. “ … In a lot of cases, the student-athlete wants to come back, and it could be the best year of their life. No such thing as too much education.”
But the Golden Eagles’ recent success has played a not-at-all-insignificant role as well.
“From some of the past players to the present players, I think they have a goal in mind and they’re pretty determined to help move our program forward,” Gust said.
Either way, Gust is preparing to begin the 2021 season with 50 or more players on his roster, an enormous number for a college baseball team. It will include upperclassmen who have been productive in the past, but it will also include at least 11 freshmen who have already committed, and reserves who have taken steps forward.
The average player doesn’t prefer sitting, and the likelihood of tensions brewing as a result increases the bigger the logjam. But Gust hopes that iron can sharpen iron.
“We really like some of the guys we signed early, but it gets a little tricky,” he said. “We feel that a little more competition’s gonna be a good thing for us. We just wanna make sure everyone gets a good experience.”
As for what would make a good experience?
Maybe the 2021 Golden Eagles picking up right where 2020 left off.
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