"We're striving for perfection": UMC refusing to settle for program-record start
To understand the Minnesota Crookston baseball team's rise, you can't just go back two or three seasons. It starts much further back than that.
The Golden Eagles didn't just spend the 2000s and early part of the 2010s in the cellar of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. It was almost as if they were playing a different sport than the rest of the league.
UMC suffered through winless seasons in 2006 and 2007. It went winless again in 2011. When current head coach Steve Gust got to Crookston in 2015, he inherited a program that had posted a 2-89 record over the last two years. Losses by 15 runs or more weren't uncommon.
Now? The Golden Eagles, in Gust's seventh season at the helm, are 16-2 after beginning the year on a 12-game winning streak. They've been ranked in the last two editions of the National College Baseball Writers' Association Division II Poll, a first for the program. They currently lead the NSIC.
Those on the outside looking in will see it as a rags-to-riches tale, and they won't be incorrect. UMC's ascendance has been jaw-dropping.
But for this year's Golden Eagles, the program that lost 500 of 543 games between 2002 and 2014 is ancient history.
To be clear, UMC's players are capable of maintaining perspective. But their goals have transcended that at this point.
"We know that we've been better than we have been in the past, and we come to the field and we know we're better than the other team," said redshirt freshman Jake Hjelle. "Anything other than a win is kind of a disappointment."
The Golden Eagles are 11th in all of Division II in scoring, averaging 9.8 runs per game. Six regular hitters — Hjelle, Brock Reller (Jr., RF), Mason Ruhlman (R-Sr., 2B), Scott Finberg (R-Sr., 3B), Will Zimmerman (R-Sr., CF) and Parker Stroh (R-Fr., C) — have on-base plus slugging percentages above 1.000. Reller, who leads the conference in slugging (.845) and is tied for the lead in home runs with eight, is a bonafide Player of the Year candidate.
UMC's pitching staff hasn't been quite as dominant, with a 5.50 earned-run average on the season. But Jake Dykhoff (Jr., RHP) has pitched like an ace, with an 0.96 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 28 innings, and freshmen Alex Koep, Brody Sorenson and Jake Osowski have established themselves as capable options out of the bullpen.
"Talent-wise, this is as good a group as we've had here," Gust said Sunday after the Golden Eagles took three out of four games on the weekend against Concordia-St. Paul. "... But we can clean up some things. In order for us to compete at the level that we want consistently, we're gonna need more."
Does Gust think his team has reached that level yet this season?
"No," he answered without hesitating. "We've pitched it well at times, we've hit the ball really well most of the season, we've played solid defense most of the season, we run the bases. But we have not played a total, compete game. We're striving for perfection. We may never get to be perfect, but that's what we're trying to do."
Minnesota Crookston went from one win the year before Gust's arrival to 14 wins in his first season. The year after that, it won 25 games and qualified for the NSIC Tournament for the first time in 15 years. It went 24-28 in 2017, 24-27 in 2018, 28-21 in 2019.
Last season, the Golden Eagles were 8-5, with one of the best offenses in the NSIC, when the season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They had felt they were ready to take another step forward before the chance to take that step was ripped away from them.
The NCAA ultimately ruled that no one would lose their eligibility with the season's cancellation, meaning that all 11 of UMC's seniors had the opportunity to return in 2021. Seven of them — including half of the Golden Eagles' starting lineup — decided to do so.
The reason, for many of them? They understood the program was only continuing to move in the right direction. They couldn't bear the thought of not finishing what they started.
"I just wanted the opportunity to kind of finish off my career my way," Ruhlman said. "Last year was taken away from us, and I really knew that this team was going to be really special. I really wanted to be a part of it because I knew what we were bringing back."
Added Zimmerman: "I think we all kind of came to the general conclusion that we wanted this. We all wanted to come back and work together and have the best year that this program's ever had."
In large part due to those decisions, this team isn't just good-for-UMC-standards good. It's downright good, by any definition. And that's why no Golden Eagle has any desire to rest on the laurels of a record start.
If UMC simply won half of its remaining games, it would make for the best season the program has ever had. But that's not the Golden Eagles' only target anymore.
"We've got a chance to be a special team," Gust said. "But ... we just can't show up and expect to win. We gotta show up and do all those little things and put in the work that championship-level teams do."
Hearing Gust and the rest of the Golden Eagles talk, it's surprisingly easy to take Gust at his word that his team, despite a No. 19 national ranking, has "a ways to go."
If that still poses a challenge, maybe it's simpler to forget everything you thought you knew about Minnesota Crookston baseball. It's time to paint a new picture in your head: one of a team where winning, and nothing short of winning, is the expectation.
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