UMC looking to bring consistent attitude and effort into conference, home play

Jacob Shames
Crookston Times
Alyssa Stillman and the Minnesota Crookston softball team dropped all four of its games at home this weekend.

In some ways, the Minnesota Crookston softball team has gotten lucky this season.

The Golden Eagles aren't typically able to practice outside for most of March. Unseasonably mild temperatures, though, have allowed them to use their home field for the last month or so. While there's only so much they can accomplish using their indoor gym and turf room, the "sky's the limit" outdoors, in the words of coach Travis Owen.

UMC's been able to use its home field, but this weekend marked a change. For the first time in nearly two years, it played competitive games on it — conference games no less.

Those games yielded four losses — a doubleheader sweep at the hands of Sioux Falls on Friday and the same result to Southwest Minnesota State on Saturday. They might not look like turning points, but to an extent, that's what they are.

This weekend brought a new phase for the Golden Eagles: one where their primary challenges, as far as winning games, aren't directly related to COVID-19, or the weather, or anything they can't control. Rather, it's about attitude and effort, according to Owen, and the struggles that come built in to being a young team in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.

"I know that's a cliché coach thing," Owen said Saturday. "But that's the mindset we're talking about, as far as learning instead of getting too down or having a bad attitude. It's not like we have that a lot, but it can happen after a strikeout or an error. You just need to be present and compete and move to the next play and learn from that mistake."

UMC is green, with six freshmen and four sophomores making up the majority of its roster. When taking into account the pandemic-induced cancellation of last season after just 16 games, the Golden Eagles are left with just two regular starters — outfielders Hannah and Leah Macias — who have played more than a full season's worth of games in their UMC careers.

That means mistakes are bound to happen. Owen looked to the second game Saturday against the Mustangs, a game he thought was much closer than the 10-4 scoreline indicated, as an example. The Golden Eagles had as many base hits as SMSU and hit two solo home runs, but left 11 runners on base and made seven errors in the field.

"We are learning, we just have to be more consistent to be able to beat some of these teams," Owen said. "But I like that we're coming along. That has to keep being our mindset."

It's a mindset that UMC can fully devote itself to now. During the fall, the Golden Eagles weren't able to practice fully — COVID-19 limited them to non-contact practices and prevented them from working on tags, among other things. Lately, they've been working on the transition from playing primarily on indoor turf fields to playing on dirt and natural grass.

But finally, the Golden Eagles have reached conference play, an important milestone and a barometer of how far they'll still need to improve. In 2019, Owen's first season at the helm, they went just 2-28 in NSIC competition after entering league play at 11-13. 

Last season, Minnesota Crookston was 6-10 when the season was cancelled. After this weekend, they sit 5-15 and 1-5 in NSIC play. After a slow start, the Golden Eagles are hitting better as of late, with a .301 batting average over their last eight games. Sophomore Dana Zarn leads the team with a .361 average, and in the circle, senior Katie Humhej has brought stability with a 2.89 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 55.2 innings.

Owen doesn't put a hard number on what he wants his team to achieve in the win column. Before the season, the Golden Eagles were just hoping to play. Now that it's well and fully under way, though, it's about making the most of that change.

"We just keep it simple," Owen said. "Our goals are very process-oriented. .... People take it the wrong way sometimes, you shouldn't have great expectations — I don't think you shouldn't have any expectations. But that's not a bad thing. Just go in and compete and see what happens, that's our big thing."

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Dana Zarn swings in a game against Sioux Falls Friday afternoon.