When the pandemic shut down the season last spring, the Minnesota-Crookston baseball team's veterans had decisions to make about their futures.
Would they graduate and move on or continue to build the Golden Eagles' program.
"I was pretty dead-set on coming back," UMC senior centerfielder Will Zimmerman said.
In total, seven UMC players came back for a fifth year. As a result, UMC is one of the hottest NCAA Division II teams in the country.
"Our senior leaders are the best since I've been in the program," UMC slugger and former Grand Forks Central standout Brock Reller said. "They know how the program is supposed to be and how coach (Steve) Gust wants to run it."
The Golden Eagles are off to a 13-1 start after 12-straight wins to open the year, with wins over some of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference annual powers in Augustana and St. Cloud State.
"The bottom line is the guys are hungry," Gust said. "When you take something away for so long, guys appreciate the time to be on the field."
All this for a program that had won just two games during the 2013 and 2014 seasons prior to Gust coming to Crookston. The Golden Eagles now have 136 wins in Gust's seven-year tenure.
In the most recent national poll, UMC was ranked No. 25 in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Division II poll. The Golden Eagles were ranked No. 26 in the Collegiate Baseball Division II poll. The rankings are the first for the program.
Like has been the case in Gust's previous stops before coming to Crookston (at Dakota Wesleyan and Northland Community & Technical College), the Golden Eagles are fueled by area talent. UMC nearly fills out an entire lineup of semi-local players.
In center, Zimmerman hails from Park River, N.D. Also in the outfield, Reller is from Grand Forks and Landyn Swenson is from Devils Lake. At first base, Jake Hjelle is from East Grand Forks and part-time catcher Parker Stroh is from Grand Forks.
Grand Forks' Brody Sorenson (1.08 earned-run average) has been a top option out of the bullpen as a freshman, while other area arms are also contributors in Conner Richardson (Grand Forks), Tyler Hegg (Thompson), Jake Osowski (East Grand Forks) and Jayden Grover (Cooperstown).
UMC was fortunate to get an additional year from Zimmerman, who nearly quit baseball after college stints at Indian Hills Community College and NCAA Division I Arkansas State.
"I debated hanging them up," Zimmerman said. "I was working in Grand Forks and hated my job. Two days before school started, I figured I'd call (Gust) up and see if he still had a spot and he was nice enough to have a spot for me."
On his third college baseball team, Zimmerman said what separates the Golden Eagles is the team culture.
"The biggest thing is a winning mentality," he said. "Everyone is in it for the team."
UMC ranks fifth in Division II in scoring. They are seventh in slugging percentage and third in home runs per game.
Reller, who's batting .407, is ninth nationally for home runs per game. He has eight total. Zimmerman ranks third in the country in runs per game.
"We're all playing for each other," Reller said. "We're not playing for stats or any individual accolades or achievements. We're just doing our best for the team."
Reller has started to attract the attention of professional scouts.
"He's taken his game up a notch," Gust said. "He's a difference-maker. He can run and throw and chase down flyballs. He's just a force at the plate. He's hitting the ball the other way when he needs to, and he's quick enough to turn on anything when a pitcher makes a mistake."
Hjelle is batting .345 with five homers, while Zimmerman is hitting .340 with 18 runs scored.
"He's a linebacker playing baseball," Gust said of Hjelle, who's listed at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds. "He's a big, physical kid, but he's another one who has gotten stronger mentally. He's made some adjustments game to game and even at-bat to at-bat."
The Golden Eagles are hitting .310 as a team, with seven players with 30 or more at-bats hitting over .300. They have 33 home runs already -- just five shy of the school record of 38 set during the 2016 season.
One big key to UMC's early surge is the pitching of junior Jake Dykhoff, who has a 0.43 ERA in 21.0 innings. The Wadena, Minn., native has 25 strikeouts to five walks with a low-90's fastball and good slider.
UMC will open its home field Saturday (1 and 3 p.m.) and Sunday (noon and 2 p.m.) against Concordia-St. Paul. The Golden Eagles were scheduled to play at home against Wayne State College last weekend but those games were canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the Wayne State program.
Gust was asked what the seven returning seniors says about the team culture in Crookston.
"It speaks to why we are where we are," he said. "They're spending thousands to play baseball. They're getting value by getting another degree or adding a minor, but it shows you they're hungry to do more on the baseball field.
"I really like where we are right now. It's a team that has the ability to go as far as they want to. We've had some decent starts in conference play before, but this team has a feeling of something really special."