After biggest week in program history, Golden Eagles on verge of something far greater
In his years of coaching, Steve Gust doesn't remember having many happier bus rides than the one his team had on Friday.
This particular ride came after the Minnesota Crookston baseball team had gone on the road and beaten No. 4 seed Minot State twice in two days to win their NSIC Tournament first-round series. While the Golden Eagles are familiar with postseason baseball, the two wins over the Beavers were their first two wins ever in the conference tournament.
"Guys were laughing and having fun," Gust said. "I think they realized the magnitude of what they just did."
On Sunday, two days after returning home, UMC had practice. It was mainly for the pitchers to get some throwing in. For the hitters, it was optional. According to Gust, just about every hitter showed up to take swings, in pouring rain no less.
No doubt the Golden Eagles took their time celebrating on the way back from Minot. But once they got back to Crookston, it became all business again.
UMC is headed for Sioux Falls, S.D. this week for the final round of the NSIC Tournament. The tournament starts Wednesday when the fifth-seeded Golden Eagles (25-10) take on top-seeded Minnesota State (34-7) at 12 p.m.
If the only UMC baseball you've watched this season was its final regular-season series, you'd be stunned. A little over a week ago, the Golden Eagles were in Minot battling with the Beavers for a top-four seed and home-field advantage for the first round of the NSIC Tournament. Whichever team won two out of three games would earn just that.
Minot State made a mockery of it. It beat UMC 4-1 in the first game of the series-opening doubleheader, then routed the Golden Eagles 19-0 a game later. UMC rebounded for a 4-3 win in the final game of the series, but the damage was done and its postseason destination was set.
"Those guys played extremely hard," Gust said. "They were treating that like the World Series. They wanted home-field advantage. ... I thought we were maybe going through the motions a little bit."
Gust noted that Minnesota Crookston didn't have its whole team in Minot. Leadoff hitter Ben Bryant missed Friday's doubleheader, while first baseman Jake Hjelle was out for the entire series.
But even with Bryant and Hjelle back in the lineup for Thursday and Friday, the Golden Eagles knew they'd need a heightened sense of urgency to come out on top. Friday's defeats were enough to create one. Being back in the conference tournament only intensified it.
"(Minot State) awoke a sleeping giant," Gust said.
Added right fielder Brock Reller: "It really helped the guys' energy levels and helped us play how we played. Everybody wanted to win for the first time for coach Gust."
Minnesota Crookston knew that Thursday and Friday's games were going to be close. That called for an emphasis on plate discipline, big pitches at key moments and limiting mistakes at bat, on the mound and in the field.
In Thursday's 10-6 win, the Golden Eagles trailed 6-5 going into the ninth inning but scored five runs to take the lead, pulling away for good on a two-run double Reller and a two-run home run by Scott Finberg.
Unlikely to be remembered as highly but almost as important was Bryant's diving stop at shortstop to turn a 6-4-3 double play in the bottom of the ninth, which quickly brought Minot State from potentially having two runners on with no outs to its last gasp.
On Friday, Minnesota Crookston started rolling early, taking a 6-0 lead in the fourth inning. But the Beavers whittled away at it and came back to within 7-6 in the ninth inning, the tying run sitting just 90 feet away.
In came right-hander Tyler Hegg, who entered the game with a 7.11 ERA in 12.2 innings. But in that moment, those stats hardly mattered: Hegg struck out two of Minot State's most dangerous hitters to seal the victory.
"It's all about big performances," Gust said. "We're not asking one guy to try to win us a baseball game. What really stuck out is that we made plays. Everybody stepped up and made plays when they had to. ... Everybody contributed in some way, shape or form. and that's what successful baseball teams do."
That's also exactly what the Golden Eagles will need to do to have success in Sioux Falls against a field that includes the 13th-ranked Mavericks as well as No. 19 Augustana and St. Cloud State, which swept UMC in April.
UMC has had a strange season. Since starting out 17-2, COVID-19 issues cost the Golden Eagles three different series in April and sapped them of momentum, leading to inconsistency down the stretch.
Minnesota Crookston was the only road team to win its first-round series last week. While it's a notable achievement, it belies the Golden Eagles' self-image.
Gust believes that his team is a legitimate top-four team in the NSIC, one that compete with anybody in the country. One that, after the biggest week in program history, still feels it has far more to prove.
"I don't get the sense that we're just happy to show up," Gust said. "We're going in there with the attitude that we're gonna find a way to win the whole thing."
Scouting Minnesota Crookston
If UMC is to have success in Sioux Falls, it will likely be due to its offense, which averages over eight runs per game. While the Golden Eagles strike out a disproportionate amount, they more than make up for it with power (63 home runs, tied for the NSIC lead with Augustana) and discipline (a league-leading 184 walks).
Reller, who's hitting .323 with 15 home runs, 45 RBIs and a .777 slugging percentage, might make opposing pitchers most scared. But Mason Ruhlman (.336, 10 home runs and a .490 on-base percentage), Hjelle (.337, nine home runs) and Will Zimmerman (.307, .474 OBP, 17 stolen bases) comprise a deadly middle of the order. All five have an OPS of at least 1.088.
The Golden Eagles are an outlier among the four remaining teams on the mound. While Minnesota State, Augustana and St. Cloud State are the NSIC's top three pitching teams, UMC's team ERA of 6.00 ranks 11th.
Many of the Golden Eagles' pitchers have shown flashes of dominance, though. Jake Dykhoff, their No. 1 starter, possesses a 3.44 ERA and has struck out 76 batters to just 14 walks in 52.1 innings. Matt Nelson (34 strikeouts in 27.1 innings, 4.61 ERA) and Conner Richardson (5.00 ERA) have been solid starters as well.
Alex Koep, Brody Sorenson and Jake Osowski, among others, have had moments of success starting and relieving. Sorenson (3.86 ERA) leads the team with six saves.
Scouting the field
UMC didn't get to play Minnesota State during the regular season, as a scheduled doubleheader in April was cancelled due to COVID-19 protocols. Wednesday will be the Golden Eagles' first time seeing the NSIC's fourth-highest scoring offense and top pitching staff by ERA (2.59).
The Mavericks' biggest strength is on the mound, where they have four starters with earned-run averages 2.07 or lower. Their staff is highlighted by 6-foot-6 right-hander Jon Ludwig, who has struck out 96 batters and walked just six on the season, along with righty Collin Denk (1.37 ERA, 68 strikeouts to four walks.) In the bullpen, closer Hunter Even has nine saves and a 1.00 ERA.
At the plate, Minnesota State is led by outfielder Joey Werner, an NSIC Player of the Year candidate who's hitting .434 with 10 home runs, a 1.252 OPS and 19 stolen bases in 23 attempts. Infielder Teddy Peterson is hitting .370 with six homers.
"They'll just keep throwing power arms at you and power arms and guys that are gonna pound the zone with more than one pitch," Gust said. "Lineups are gonna be filled with guys who can run, hit for average, hit for some power. They're the complete team."
The Golden Eagles split their March 30 doubleheader with Augustana (33-9), the No. 2 seed and two-time defending NSIC champion. The Vikings are averaging 8.26 runs per game and have the conference's second-best ERA while leading the league in batting average (.322).
Carter Howell, Will Olson, Christian Kuzemka, Jordan Barth and Sam Baier are all hitting at least .331 — Howell is batting .419 with nine homers, while Olson has 13 homers and a .744 slugging percentage. As a team, the Vikings also lead the conference with 111 stolen bases.
Ryan Jares is second in the league in ERA at 1.59 and has struck out 85 batters in 59 innings. Caleb Kranz (41 strikeouts in 23 innings) is one of the NSIC's top relievers, and Tanner Brown (3.11 ERA) threw a perfect game against Minot State in March.
St. Cloud State (22-12) hits .321 as a team and gets on base more often than any other NSIC team (.416). The Huskies' offense is spearheaded by six hitters batting above .313, including three (Jake Schusterich, John Nett and Matt Quade) above .370.
Trevor Koenig, a 6-foot-11 left-hander, has a 2.45 ERA in 52 innings, and Jack Habeck (2.82 ERA) and Matt Osterberg (62 strikeouts in 44.2 innings) are key arms in St. Cloud State's pitching staff which is ranked third in the NSIC in ERA.
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