Saying Patrick Rients took a circuitous route to the Southwest Minnesota State baseball team doesn't do justice to the term.

Rients, a native of Jackson, Minn., started his baseball career at Ridgewater College in Willmar, where he quickly realized that a love of cars had superseded his love of playing. He quit the team, then went to work at a body shop in Lakefield.

After two years, he had a different revelation: "I decided I didn't want to be stuck at the body shop all my life."

Also, he was wearing out the pitchers on his summer ball team in Jackson. "One of the guys was like, 'You need to be playing somewhere. You can't just keep playing summer ball.' "

One of his teammates knew Paul Blanchard, the head coach at Southwest Minnesota State. Rients was convinced to come aboard, and after a redshirt season a year ago to catch up on academics, the move has been working out beautifully for both sides.

Going into the start of the NSIC tournament on Wednesday, Rients, a 6-1 lefthanded hitter, has 18 home runs and an .817 slugging percentage — both tops in the nation among Division II players.

At age 24, he's more than making up for lost time. On Tuesday, he was named All-NSIC first team and NSIC Newcomer of the Year. Just as important to Rients, he was named first-team all-academic.

"Going out of high school, I didn't have to do much in the classroom," Rients said. "I came here and I was worried I wouldn't be able to do it all. I had to put my mind in the books more than I did in high school."

Perhaps it's the wisdom that comes with age. Rients is the oldest player on the team, a fact that is not lost on his teammates.

"I'd be a sixth-year junior, if you want to put it that way," he said. "My teammates are better about it, but they give me a little grief. I say, 'If you don't want to hang out with the old guy, that's fine.' "

Not many pitchers can hang with Rients, but the Mustangs have a tough task ahead in the playoff opener Wednesday against Augustana. Though Southwest Minnesota State finished 26-21, it was 0-4 this season against Augustana.

"I think we're all on the same page," Rients said. "We think we can hang with Augustana. We feel we can make a run at it."

– and who knows, maybe more baseball in him after that?

"It would be nice to maybe get a look, but I'm content with being a decent D-II player," Rients said.

Michael Rand