After receiving few looks from Division 1 programs as a high school player at Delano, Zach Muckenhirn is now wanted by some of the top baseball programs in the country
When Zach Muckenhirn was trying to figure out where he was going to play college baseball after graduating from Delano High School in the spring of 2013, he was told by a prominent recruiter from the only Division 1 baseball college in the state of Minnesota that he was not a Division 1 talent.
Muckenhirn’s future in the game was as a pitcher. The left-hander went 6-1 with a 0.89 earned run average and 59 strikeouts in 59 innings during the 2013 regular season, and was a key piece to Delano’s run to the Class AA state tournament.
Muckenhirn’s success as a high school player and his potential were not enough to impress a University of Minnesota recruiter, who saw Muckenhirn only because he was the teammate of Toby Hanson, who is currently a sophomore starter for the Gophers, so Muckenhirn crossed the boarder and signed his letter of intent to play at the University of North Dakota (UND), a lesser-known Division 1 baseball school.
“If he came in with a chip on his shoulder and worked hard, we knew he would be good,” said UND coach Jeff Dodson. “His projectability — when you saw the way his arm works, you could see he was going to be good in a couple years.”
It didn’t take a couple years for Muckenhirn to develop into a quality Division 1 pitcher. He became a valuable arm his freshman season in Grand Forks.
“Some programs don’t have time to wait on guys. When he came out (of high school), we had time on our side. We had him as a midweek starter, but he developed and developed, and became a weekend starter,” said Dodson. “What sets him apart are his intangibles. You can tell by looking in a kid’s eye what he’s made of. Obviously, he is a great student, and he works hard on and off the field.”
In three seasons in Grand Forks, Muckenhirn went 11-19 with a 3.85 earned average. He struck out 200 batters and walked only 65 in 240 2/3 innings.
This past spring, his junior season at UND, Muckenhirn went 3-8 with a 3.59 earned run average, and struck out 99 and walk 14 in 92 2/3 innings.
The rest of the Western Athletic Conferene (WAC) looked past Muckenhirn’s wins-losses record, and named him to the All-WAC Second team.
There will not be a fourth season at UND for Muckenhirn or any of the other players, coaches and fans. That was made official May 18, when the school officially announced the baseball program will be eliminated following the conclusion of the recent season.
“We all feel like seniors,” Muckenhirn told the Grand Forks Herald May 15, following UND’s 7-2 loss to New Mexico State in their final home game at Kraft Field.
The final game of the season was a 16-2 loss in seven innings May 21 at Bakersfield. That loss cemented UND’s record for its final season at 8-37.
UND’s baseball program dates back to 1889, and has been played continuously since 1956. Men’s golf was also on the chopping block.
For Muckenhirn, the elimination of baseball at UND was another form of rejection. In an odd twist of fate, though, being rejected, first by the University of Minnesota, and, then, by the University of North Dakota, may turn out to be the best things to happen to Muckenhirn’s future in baseball, as, when it was first announced April 11 that baseball was to be cut at UND, the 29 players on the roster were relieved of their commitments to the school and granted a blanket transfer that allows them to play at a different school without having to sit out a season.
So, where will Muckenhirn play his senior season of college baseball? He hasn’t announced his decision yet, but he has plenty of options, as more than 100 schools have attempted to contact him over the past two months. Close to 60 of those schools have gotten through to the left-hander.
While Muckenhirn did not want to name the front-runners, that one or more he is leaning toward play in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the most prolific baseball conference in the country.
So much for not being a Division 1 talent.
“I can’t speak for why they are calling me and giving me these offers,” Muckenhirn said. “I imagine, with a senior, it is low risk and high reward.”
Dodson has an idea why top-notch program are interested in Muckenhirn and a handful of his former UND teammates.
“(Schools) have a transfer who is immediately eligible with D-1 experience. Someone who understands the process,” Dodson said, then speaking specifically about Muckenhirn. “He has D-1 experience as a weekend guy. Last season he pitched behind Andrew Thome, who is with the Astros. (Muckenhirn) led the conference in strikeouts.
“Everyone we played said he was the best pitcher in the league.”
Pursuing a player for one season doesn’t seem worthy for a college baseball team, but think of players like Muckenhirn as veteran free agents, who allow a school to turn any scholarship money back over the next season.
“Some programs that have contacted me have had successful senior transfers in the past,” Muckenhirn noted.
Muckenhirn’s pitching numbers aren’t eye-popping on the surface, so why are so many prominent teams after Muckenhirn, a kid from a small town in Minnesota, who admits to never having been the best player on his team? They saw what he can do against top programs in the country.
In UND’s first game of the season, Feb. 19 in Los Angeles, Muckenhirn shut out then-No. 12 Southern California (USC), striking out nine and giving up just three hits in a 1-0 win. He sat down the final 15 batters in order.
“When it happened, that was the most unbelievable feeling I experienced,” Muckenhirn said of the performance against USC. “I pitched well, but my team came ready to play and that was awesome to watch.”
UND won two of the three games against USC. They were the first wins over a Division 1 program for the Fighting Hawks.
For his effort in Game 1, Muckenhirn was named National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association National Pitcher of the Week and WAC Pitcher of the Week
“He would have been noticed throughout the year,” Dodson said of Muckenhirn, noting the performance at USC sped up the process. “The way he performed and the way we played behind him at USC, it was a great start for him, and to do it in high-profile market was a big thing.”
Muckenhirn’s next start proved he was no fluke — 12 strikeouts and only four hits in eight innings in a 2-1 loss at Alabama, which resides in the SEC. The two runs the Crimson Tide scored off Muckenhirn were both unearned.
“That was the best stretch of baseball I have been a part of in my life. To be on a stage like that (at USC) with thousands of people in the stands against the 12th ranked team in the country; those are the teams I want to pitch against — at the highest level on the highest stage.”
Those first two performances were huge for Muckenhirn because of who they came against.
“Schools we talk to think he can be a weekend guy because they have seen him pitch against some of the best guys in the country who play in their league,” Dodson said.
Muckenhirn added two more games with double-digit strikeouts to his resumé this past season. He fanned a season-high 14 March 14 in 7 1/3 innings a 1-0 loss at Sacramento State, and 10 batters March 6 in an 18-4 win at Chicago State.
Muckenhirn has struck out 90 batters in 85 2/3 innings this season.
Its numbers like these and performances like the ones Muckenhirn enjoyed against USC and Alabama that get noticed by recruiters at the highest level, as well.
The Major League Baseball Amateur Draft begins Thursday, June 9.
“(The draft) has been talked about,” said Muckenhirn, who throws four pitches regularly and can reach 93 on the radar gun. “A lot of people have an opinion and tell me what they think will happened. I personally, because of that, have no way of knowing what will happen. If a team wants to offer me a good offer, that’s something that would be exciting.”
Getting drafted was something Muckenhirn never would have expected when he was helping the Delano Tigers get to the state tournament.
“A majority of the (MLB) teams have contacted me,” he said. “Obviously, in high school, that was not the case.”
The idea of playing at a high-level college or even professionally was not always on Muckenhirn’s radar, he admits.
“I certainly didn’t expect my career to take the turn it did, but I prepared for it and I worked for it,” he said. “It took three years of the hardest work of my life.”
That work ethic was something Dodson noticed during Muckenhirn’s freshman season at UND. It is also the root of how Muckenhirn transformed from a two-pitch pitcher to one who can throw four pitches.
“He can throw any pitch for a strike at any time. When you have a guy who can do that, you can teach him to tweak a pitch.”
The results of his hard work are evident in Muckenhirn’s physical body.
When Dodson recruited him at Delano, Muckenhirn measured up at 6 feet tall, 170 pounds. On his biography page on the UND website, he is listed at 6-1, 180 pounds. Anybody who has seen Muckenhirn when he has returned home to Delano for a visit, knows that extra 10 pounds is all muscle.
Muckenhirn won’t be home much this summer for his friends to see. Instead, he will be in Hyannis, MA, where he will pitch for the Harbor Hawks of the Cape Cod League.
During the previous two summers, Muckenhirn pitched for the Alexandria Blue Anchors, who folded after last season.
“I don’t know if there is something wrong with me, or what,” Muckenhirn questioned about all the teams he plays on eventually folding.
Obviously, there is something right with Muckenhirn, and playing at UND exposed those qualities to the rest of the country.
“I plugged myself into the perfect program for me. I’m thankful to my coaches and my teammates here. They gave me the opportunity. The coach here always preaches opportunities,” Muckenhirn said. “He gave me an opportunity when nobody else would and I dedicated myself to making that opportunity last.”
The UND coaches did more than just present opportunities to their players. In Muckenhirn’s case, they became his marketing managers, filtering phone calls and scheduling interviews with potential schools.
“That is incredible to me, because they have the season to manage and they have their jobs and families,” said Muckenhirn about his coaches. “To give this time and effort to the players is phenomenal.”
Dodson noted that helping his players on and off the field is what he promised each athlete and his family on the recruiting trail.
“It was the right thing to do. These kids committed to our university and our program. Being the leader and coach, you always try to help the guys, former or current players, especially in situations like this,” Dodson explained. “When you put your word on the line, saying you will help, you need to back that up.”
As for the elimination of UND’s baseball program, the news was unexpected, and it came at a time the program was gaining traction, Muckenhirn said.
“It’s not something you want anybody to go through and you cannot prepare for it. In the last calendar year, we have had three pro contracts signed from this program,” he explained. “Before this news was delivered to us, it was all positive. Growth was happening and we were accomplishing a lot with what we have. To hear this news was a complete surprise to the players and I imagine the coaches, as well.”
Dodson, who is a veteran of the Division 1 bench, didn’t say where he and his assistant coaches will end up, but he is optimistic his players will find a place to play.
“I think everybody who wants to find a place to play will,” he said.
Dodson noted the players who are deep in their majors at UND may choose to remain at the school as only students to finish their studies.
Four of Muckenhirn’s teammates have already committed to transferring to play baseball at other Division 1 programs.
Catcher Miles Lewis (Hudson WI) committed to Michigan; catcher Brett Harrison (Winnipeg) to Memphis; junior Zach Finley (Brentwood, CA) to South Dakota State; and junior infielder Ben Reznicek (Sioux Falls, SD) to Creighton.
Muckenhirn returned home to Delano last Wednesday night for a short visit before heading south for a recruiting visit. Thursday morning, he didn’t let on to where he was going, but he said he hopes to make a decision before the MLB draft.
Zach Muckenhirn’s Stats at the University of North Dakota
Year ERA W-L CG IP H R ER BB SO
2014 3.44 2-4 0 65.1 59 32 25 30 44
2015 4.46 6-7 1 82.2 103 51 41 21 57
Total 3.85 11-19 3 240.2 249 133 103 65 200