– The St. Cloud State Huskies will take a 51-3 record and the nation’s No. 1 ranking in NCAA Division II baseball into the six-team Central Regional that starts Thursday at Joe Faber Field.

Coach Pat Dolan said there is one undeniable requirement for a college team to win 50 games.

“You have to play 50 games,” Dolan said. “A couple of years ago, we won the regular season title in the conference, and we had 14 games canceled by weather. This season, we’ve played our entire schedule.”

The Huskies opened with a 23-game winning streak. They are now on a 21-game winning streak, including four games in last weekend’s Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The reward for this is to host a region that includes Minnesota State Mankato, 41-7 and St. Cloud’s mighty rival from the Northern Sun, and four other potent teams from Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas.

“Missouri Southern is from a tough league [Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletic Association], it was both the regular season and playoff champ, and it’s the fifth seed,” Dolan said. “This is going to be good baseball, if you’re a fan.”

Dolan is aware there are plenty of those within a 45-minute drive of St. Cloud’s two-field baseball complex, Faber and Dick Putz. This is Stearns County, where there are 29 town-ball teams within its borders.

The hottest of the baseball hotbeds is Cold Spring. Dolan was an outstanding all-around athlete at Rocori High School and is in the school’s Hall of Fame. He graduated in 1986, went to Iowa Western [J.C.] and then to Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton.

“I had this idea if you wanted to make it in baseball, you had to go South,” Dolan said. “That’s why I found a school in Florida. That’s why I went back down there as a coach.”

Dolan was 25 when he started his coaching career back in Minnesota, at Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids. “One year, the first 50 games we played, 48 were on the road,” Dolan said. “Weather.”

He stayed for four years and played during the summer with the town-ball legends, the Cold Spring Springers. In 1997, the South again beckoned, and Dolan went to St. Andrews College in Laurinburg, N.C., as an assistant.

That got him the head coaching job at Belmont Abbey in Charlotte, N.C. He coached there from 1999 through 2001, turning around a woeful program.

“I wanted to come home,” Dolan said. “I realized that where I’m from, there are as many talented guys looking for a chance to play good baseball as in the South.

‘‘And they don’t care if it’s 35 degrees, or 80, they want to play.”

Dolan’s first stop on his return to the Midwest was Dakota State, an NAIA school in Madison, S.D. He won a lot of games, and then the St. Cloud State job opened when Denny Lorsung resigned after the 2007 season.

“I had some good friends with a strong connection to St. Cloud State, guys like Charlie Eisenreich, who gave me recommendations,” Dolan said. “Being from right here, Cold Spring, that also helped.”

St. Cloud had not been in an NCAA regional since 1991. Dolan built the Huskies toward a four-year run of tournaments from 2010-13. Now this: 51-3, No. 1 nationally, regional hosts.

Pressure?

“We have to stick to the plan, like we’ve done all season,” Eric Loxtercamp said. “Our pitching has been tremendous. We’ve improved a lot in the field over last season. And it’s amazing how everything came together with our lineup.”

Reese Gregory nodded and said: “We’ve been strong one through nine. We’ve been able to put together a rally from anywhere in the lineup.”

Loxtercamp is a senior center field from Cold Spring (why not?). Gregory is a junior and an ace pitcher from St. Cloud Apollo. He bats when he pitches, and serves as the designated hitter when he’s not on the mound.

Gregory’s father, Mike, was the Apollo baseball coach. He died in a fall in 2010.

“I grew up loving baseball because of my father,” he said. “I want to do everything right by my family. One way is to keep baseball important for us.”

A trip to Cary, N.C. for the Division II World Series [May 23-30] would be a tribute to that family baseball legacy. It also would be an interesting return to a state where Dolan spent five years of his Southern excursion.

“We all know that baseball is a humbling game,” Dolan said. “And with Mankato and these other clubs … we’re not 51-3, we’re zero and zero, and we’ll have to play great this week.”

 

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. preusse@startribune.com