March began on a sour note for St. Cloud State. Its athletic department recently announced it was forced to cut six programs as well as make some roster cuts across several others due to financial distress caused from declining enrollment. Men's and Women's Tennis, Men's Cross Country as well as both Indoor and Outdoor Track and Field are amongst the significant programs that are no longer on SCSU's campus.
“I don’t think there was concern that they were going to cut our program,” SCSU baseball head coach Pat Dolan said. “There has been a great tradition of baseball here, long before I got here. We have to reduce our numbers now. If we have to reduce a couple kids from our roster, it’s not nearly as painful as losing your program. It will hurt recruiting more than anything else.
“If we didn’t have Division I hockey, we would be really struggling. I think a lot of people think that all of our programs have all of these resources like hockey. To do this on our budget and resources is really a credit to our players and what they’ve done.”
Attempting to provide the cliched silver lining is Dolan and the Huskies baseball team. Sitting at 15-0, SCSU is the new No. 1 team in the nation.
“They know what they got to do,” Dolan said. “They are hungry and they are humble. Not one person on our team has ever talked about the rankings. We were ranked No. 1 last season for a couple weeks. But then Henderson State came in and they kicked the snot out of everybody in our region and took fourth in the World Series. It’s an accomplishment to be where we are at, yet we do have some unfinished business and hopefully with this senior group that we have they can make that jump into the next level.”
SCSU is coming off their best season in program’s history, as they finished 54-5. Dolan's work wouldn't go unnoticed as he was both NSIC and NCBWA Coach of the Year. Reese Gregory joined him in the honors and was the Daktronics National Pitcher of the Year behind an undefeated record (13-0). Mike Jurgella was the NSIC Player of the Year and Sheldon Miks was the Freshman of the Year. They dominated the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference behind a 31-3 record, an impressive feat in a conference that is an annual grind.
“We’re not the only team in the Northern Sun that needs to travel,” Dolan said of the competitive NSIC that spans six states. “There are ten or eleven hour trips just for conference play. It puts a grind on the student-athlete part, but I’m really proud of what they’ve done academically, posting a GPA over 3.2 for ten straight semesters. We call it study bus.”
This season’s rendition of the Huskies is a roster laden of four-year starters. Coach Dolan also had the luxury of returning eight of their top pitchers as well as seven starters. One of those pitchers is Sheldon Miks.
Miks is coming off a 2015 debut season that saw him go 10-2. He finished with an unbelievable 1.15 ERA hurling four complete game shutouts en route to NSIC Freshman of the Year. This season he has tossed aside any notion of a sophomore slump, and is having an even better second season. He sits at 4-0 with 0.96 ERA.
Despite a frame that may project as what many consider to be a power pitcher, Miks has found success with finesse. His secondary pitches have become almost more reliable than his fastball.
“You always look for a guy that throws hard,” Dolan said. “But here’s a guy that’s 6-foot-3, 210 pounds -- looks the part -- but he only throws about 83 or 84 miles per hour. That change up he has and cutter -- he just doesn’t walk anybody. Miks and Reese Gregory are so good with their control, they can pick and choose when they want to paint the corners. He shows you don’t have to light up the radar gun to be successful.”
The Huskies expected big things from Beau Fandel, a transfer from DI Nebraska, in his second season at SCSU. The one-time catcher has dealt with injury history, so a move to second base proved successful last season in his Huskies' debut. Fandel would get injured again this offseason and be shelved for six months. Dolan was searching for his next man up.
That man is freshman Judd Davis.
“Defensively he’s one of the better middle infielders I have ever coached,” Dolan said of his redshirt freshman. “We put two or three guys out there the first couple of games, the next thing you know Judd goes 4-for-5, then 3-for-5. He’s been hitting doubles and triples, walking, and he hit a grand slam in Arizona. For a redshirt freshman it's nice for a guy to come in and be so well liked. He’s going to be a big time player for us, there’s no question about that.”
Davis is seemingly hitting any and everything thrown his way. He currently leads the entire nation in batting average, hitting .618 and his keen eye has led to a .690 on base percentage, also tops in the country.
Of course you can’t talk about St. Cloud baseball without talking about Reese Gregory. The starting pitcher, infielder and designated hitter has a trophy case full of accolades that would make anyone jealous. Gregory is a three-time All-American, has been part of several All-Central Region First Teams and has been a Brett Tomko Award finalist, just to name a few.
This year, he was one of four DII players to make the Golden Spikes Preseason Watch List.
“It was pretty unbelievable, I couldn’t even process it at the time,” Gregory said. “It was an absolute honor to be noticed like that.”
Gregory’s climb to the top started in high school. When Gregory was 16, he and his Apollo High School teammates dealt with the sudden and tragic loss of their head coach. For Gregory, it went deeper than that. Apollo High School’s head coach was Mike Gregory, Reese’s father. Some questioned if he would go on to play collegiate ball after that.
“It definitely motivated me,” Gregory said of his father’s passing. “He was huge in the baseball community here in St. Cloud. He loved the game, and bestowed that love and passion for the game in me. I knew that I wanted to do whatever I could to carry it out. It propelled me to become a better baseball player.”
Gregory would go to St. Cloud and become a two-way superstar. That first season, he would set the SCSU saves record for a single season with 10, and from there he continued to rise as one of the greatest players in the program’s history. He quickly put himself on the DII baseball map by becoming an All-American as a freshman. Since then he has never batted below .339 and has amassed 28 wins and 23 saves in four seasons out of the bullpen and as a starter. He hasn't lost an outing since 2014.
“I recruited him as our starting third baseman and told him I would give him a chance as a relief pitcher early on,” Dolan said. “Then here as a freshman he’s an All-American, an All-American as a sophomore and then [DII National] Pitcher of the Year last year. He could be our starting first baseman, our starting third baseman, and now he’s our starting DH and pitcher. He’s a gamer that’s for sure. He’s one of the best players I’ve coached in my 25 years. What a success story.”
“I like being able to do it all,” Gregory said of his game. “You can’t pitch everyday. It’s nice to be able to go out and help my team win any time with the bat as well as being on the mound. When I get my opportunity, I try to help out anyway possible.”
Gregory is relentless in his desire to be the best player he can be. He has big league aspirations hoping to one day get the opportunity to pitch for a Major League team. He has spent the past few seasons in the collegiate summer ball Northwoods League pitching for the St. Cloud Rox. This past season, he led the entire league with a 1.46 ERA while earning an All Star nod.
“I loved it,” Gregory said of his Northwoods League experience. “Augie [Rodriguez] is such a great coach for me and he has helped me out ever since I was a freshman. He’s been behind me and tremendous in making me a better player and better person all around.”
SCSU has risen to great heights and have been to the Regional Tournament in four of the previous six seasons. The end result has been the same: a second place finish all four times.
“We’ve proven we can win conference tournaments and regular season titles,” Dolan said. “We’ve taken second in the Regional -- we’ve been so close. I don’t think it adds any pressure on the players, but it’s just hard to win a six-team tournament when you got quality teams across the region.”
“We’re just trying to play off who we are, the team we are this year,” Gregory added. “We try not to compare ourselves to last year. If we try to do that, it will make us press, and the best way we play as a team is to stay lose, stick to the plan and play our game.”
SCSU has represented an NSIC conference that has proven that they can challenge other teams across the country for the title. Schools like Mankato and Winona State aren’t far removed from playing in the championship game. To say that Cary, North Carolina is on the Huskies mind is an understatement, but they understand the process it takes to get there.
“Our region has shown we can compete at the national level,” Dolan said. “That’s our ultimate goal is to get there. Our first goal is to win the Northern Sun, to defend our title. Hopefully we do that, it would be awesome to host a regional.”
Through it all, whether it be the heartbreak of loss or the struggle of staying atop the game financially, Dolan couldn’t be happier of his team. They remain humble and have come together as a family to take this program to new heights that had Dolan using the same word time and time again.
"We have two scholarships, we don’t have any paid assistant coaches, we don’t even have our own field, we use a city field for our games,” Dolan said. “Add the fact that Mother Nature puts the snow on us all the time, and people don’t think of Minnesota baseball of being that good. I’m proud of what we’ve done here with the limited resources that we have. You get guys like Reese and Sheldon, and all of these seniors, it’s kind of blue collar. You go out, play the game and you have fun.”