By Donny Nadeau ’85, Sports Information director

WINONA, Minn. — For most college athletes, their senior seasons are the final chapters of their competitive playing careers.

Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota athletes Willie Doll ’16 (Amherst, Wis.), Ben Buerkle ’17 (Roseville, Minn.), and Martin Gruse ’17 (Trenton, Mich.), however, aren’t like most athletes.

And their senior-season final chapters weren’t enough—they’re writing an epilogue.

This Cardinal trio has taken their games to the next level, capping off stellar collegiate careers by signing professional contracts: Doll with the Santa Fe Fuego of the Pecos Independent League, Buerkle with the St. Paul Saints of the American Association of Professional Baseball, and Gruse with the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Pensacola Ice Flyers.

“To have three student-athletes from the past two graduating classes sign professional contracts speaks volumes to their hard work, dedication, and their development while competing at Saint Mary’s,” said Saint Mary’s athletic director Dr. Nikki Fennern. “We are attracting great student-athletes to Saint Mary’s, they are succeeding while they are here, and they are going to excel after their time as a Cardinal—athletically, in their careers, and in their communities.

“All three of these individuals garnered much attention for their athletic success,” Fennern added. “They were also great students and leaders, which will guide them as they excel in their professional athletics pursuits and beyond. I am so proud of all of our student-athletes for their success on and off the field of competition.”

Head coaches Nick Winecke (baseball) and Bill Moore (men’s hockey) couldn’t agree more.

“Ben and Willie are both future Hall of Famers, but what makes them Hall of Famer-caliber isn’t the fact they both played professionally or that they hold many Saint Mary’s baseball records—it’s that they are Hall of Fame teammates and people,” said Winecke, who benefited from the services of Doll from 2013-16 and Buerkle from 2014-17.

“The fact that both of these guys were rewarded with the opportunity to play at the next level is no mistake,” he said. “In our program, we believe that good things happen to good people—and this is the case when you talk about Ben and Willie. I am very happy for both of these guys—as well as all the teammates who were with each of them over the course of their time here at Saint Mary’s.”

“Ever since I started recruiting Martin six years ago, he has always had the goal of playing hockey professionally,” Moore said. “His hard work has paid off.  I am very proud of Martin and all he has accomplished during his Cardinal career.”

Doll, a three-time All-Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference selection—not to mention earning All-Region and Third-Team All-American honors during his senior season in a Cardinal uniform—completed his first season with the Fuegos in late July. Doll hit a team-leading .466 (54-for-116) with 36 runs scored, nine doubles, one triple, five home runs, and 34 RBIs in 46 games . The Cardinals’ all-time stolen base leader, went 11-for-13 in the stolen base department with the Fuegos.

A four-time American Baseball Coaches Association/Rawlings All-Midwest Region pick, as well as a 2016 Second-Team ABCA All-American and a three-time CoSIDA Academic All-America® selection, Buerkle made his debut with the Saints a memorable one, collecting a hit in his first professional at-bat. Buerkle has played in 28 games with the Saints, hitting .222 (16-for-72) with one double and six RBIs.

Gruse, a three-time All-MIAC First-Teamer—while also earning AHCA/CCM Second-Team All-American honors following his sophomore season—signed with Pensacola on Aug. 24 and will be a member of the Ice Flyers’ roster for the 2017-18 season.

“With Marty, Ben and Willie all playing professionally, this is a very exciting time for Saint Mary’s athletics,” Winecke said. “This just shows that if you are good enough, people will know about you and will find you. It doesn’t matter what level you play—Division I, II, or III. Good players are always found, and we are excited for the chance to have three of our former players getting these opportunities.”

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