It takes a few unexpected surprises to pull off a season like the Gophers baseball team is having, heading into Friday's NCAA tournament opener against Wake Forest.
The Gophers went 21-30 last year and were picked to finish as low as 10th in the Big Ten this season.
They had a roster filled with unknowns. Austin Athmann was one of them. The big, promising catcher from Cold Spring Rocori had been having a hard time staying healthy his first two years at Minnesota. He was a .282 hitter with one career home run.
But Athmann has blossomed into a legitimate prospect for next week's Major League Baseball draft. The junior cleanup hitter and first-team All-Big Ten selection is batting .367 with 11 home runs, 39 RBI and a team-best 1.060 OPS.
Scouts view Athmann as the Gophers' No. 2 draft prospect behind lefthanded pitcher Dalton Sawyer, a 27th-round pick last year by the Twins who returned as a senior and is 7-6 with a 3.15 ERA and 107 strikeouts.
"I'm trying to keep [the draft] in the back of my mind because it's obviously a goal of mine to possibly go that route," Athmann said. "But there's more business to be taken care of here at school before I take the next step."
The 6-2, 210-pound Athmann's potential was obvious when he got to Minnesota. He batted .277 his first year and was named to the Big Ten all-freshman team, but he was beset by injuries. He needed right elbow and hip surgery before his sophomore season.
But after batting .286 in limited duty for the Gophers last season, Athmann gained key experience competing in the Northwoods League for the St. Cloud Rox. He played 61 games and led the team with 43 RBI.
"He's in better shape," coach John Anderson said. "He's just had more practice time. He's been able to refine his game, get healthy and he always had talent. That's why we recruited him. That was never the problem."
With Athmann helping power the way, the Gophers won their first Big Ten regular season title since 2010 and made the NCAA tournament for the first time since that same year.
Anderson said this is his most talented team since 2010, a squad that had three players drafted in the top 10 rounds — Michael Kvasnicka, Seth Rosin and Kyle Knudson.
"There's just more talent on this team [than in recent years]," Anderson said. "You throw in the makeup of the team — the culture and chemistry is off the charts — that helps you a little bit more in my opinion."
Besides Sawyer and Athmann, other Gophers with the best draft prospects appear to be pitcher/slugger Matt Fiedler, center fielder Dan Motl and closer Jordan Jess.
Other unexpected surprises include second baseman Connor Schaefbauer (.260 batting average last year/.316 this year), third baseman Micah Coffey (.243/.332) and right fielder Alex Boxwell (.194/.333).
Then there's Fiedler. He was a top hitter for the Gophers last season as a sophomore but did most of his pitching in relief. He emerged as the team's top starter this year and went 7-3, to go with his .377 average, earning Big Ten MVP honors.
"It was a huge honor," Fiedler said. "There were a lot of guys super deserving. "
The Gophers will need all their top players at their best to survive this weekend in College Station, Texas.
But it's already been a turnaround year for Anderson's program.
"It feels great, especially after the tough year we had last year," Athmann said. "We really focused on changing our mind-set and just playing the game we love to play."