Minnesota Crookston baseball picked to finish seventh in NSIC
Expectations for the Minnesota Crookston baseball team are higher than they've ever been.
The Golden Eagles were picked to finish seventh in the NSIC Preseason Coaches' Poll, which was released Thursday afternoon. It's the highest UMC has ever been picked, ahead of its eighth-place projection ahead of last season.
The poll was compiled by each NSIC coach ranking each team from top to bottom, with the top team receiving 14 points, second 13, third 12, and so on. Coaches did not rank their own teams.
In 2020, Minnesota Crookston got off to an 8-5 start, one of its best starts in program history, before the season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Golden Eagles had a .942 OPS and were outscoring their opponents by an average of over three runs per game when the season was cancelled.
In 2019, the Golden Eagles' last complete season, they finished with their all-time best record, going 28-21, and qualified for the NSIC Tournament.
UMC brings back several key players from last year's team, including 10 of their top 11 hitters by at-bats and six of their top seven pitchers by innings pitched.
On the batting side, Brock Reller (Jr., OF) hit .360 with five home runs and 17 runs batted in last season, slugging .860. Scott Finberg (Sr., 3B) hit .383 with five home runs and 15 RBI. Mason Ruhlman (Rs. Sr., 2B) hit .360 with two home runs and 13 RBI. Brad Morris (Jr., OF) hit .382 and drove in eight runs.
Pitching-wise, the Golden Eagles return Jayden Grover (Sr., RHP), who went 2-1 with a 3.86 earned-run average and 26 strikeouts in 2020. Connor Richardson (Jr., RHP) went 3-0 with a 2.57 ERA. Matt Nelson (So., RHP) had a 1.98 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 13.2 innings.
Reller was selected as the NSIC Player to Watch for Minnesota Crookston. Grover, the school's all-time leader in strikeouts, was named the NSIC Pitcher to Watch.
Head coach Steve Gust, who's going into his seventh year leading the Golden Eagles, said in a release that his team might be the most talented team he's had at UMC, while noting that "most teams in our conference would probably say the same." Last spring, the NCAA ruled that all Division II spring sports athletes would get an extra year of eligibility in the wake of the season's cancellation.
"We should have good balance up and down our line-up with a combination of power, speed and on-base type of hitters," Gust said. "We also added depth and quality arms to our pitching staff. Most importantly, we just want to give our student-athletes a chance for a little bit of normalcy in what has been a very difficult year.”
Augustana was picked to finish first in the conference for the third year in a row. The Vikings, who won a national title in 2018 and won the NSIC Tournament in 2018 and 2019, received 13 of 15 first-place votes from the conference's coaches.
Minnesota State, which was picked second, received the other two first-place votes.
Augustana outfielder Jordan Barth was named the NSIC Preseason Player of the Year for the second straight season. Barth hit .471 in 13 games last spring. The Vikings also had the Preseason Pitcher of the Year in Max Steffens. Steffens, who received the honor last season as well, went 9-1 with a 2.77 ERA in 2019.
Division II baseball non-conference play will get going in early February, and NSIC conference play will get underway on March 20. The top eight regular-season teams will qualify for the NSIC Tournament, which will be held in Sioux Falls, S.D. from May 12-15.
While the Golden Eagles have not released a full schedule yet, they will open the NSIC season by taking on Winona State in Winona March 20-21. Per a release, UMC is also looking to add four non-conference games prior to NSIC play.
NSIC PRESEASON BASEBALL COACHES' POLL
- 1. Augustana (13 first-place votes) - 195 points
- 2. Minnesota State (2 first-place votes) - 181 points
- 3. St. Cloud State - 160 points
- 4. Minot State - 153 points
- 5. Wayne State - 151 points
- 6. Winona State - 130 points
- 7. Minnesota Crookston - 114 points
- 8. Concordia-St. Paul - 103 points
- 9. Northern State - 78 points
- 10. Minnesota Duluth - 77 points
- 11. University of Mary - 69 points
- 12. Southwest Minnesota State - 49 points
- 13. Sioux Falls - 41 points
- 14. Upper Iowa - 36 points
- 15. Bemidji State - 28 points
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