Hastings Sodbusters facing the Fremont Moo on June 28 at Duncan Field
Hastings Sodbusters facing the Fremont Moo for the third game of their season on June 28 at Duncan Field. (Kylee Sodomka Photo)

The show must go on – especially for the Hastings Sodbusters.

Bill Clay stepped down as the head coach of the Hastings Sodbusters on July 1 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It came as a bit of a surprise to co-owner Bryan Frew. He says he understands why Clay decided to leave.

“We don’t really know what his thought process was,” he said. “It was just a personal decision that he thought was too high of a risk to be around.”

Clay left after only five games, with a 1-4 record. The Sodbusters are following the precautions set by the CDC, but with Clay being an older coach, he is more at risk than the other coaches and players.

“It had nothing to do with our organization, not giving him a safe environment,” Frew said. “As you get older, the risk factors increase a little bit.”

The rest of the team, including Hastings St. Cecilia High School graduate and Fort Hays State University junior Grant Schmidt, were surprised at the sudden departure of their head coach.

“No one would have ever saw this coming,” Schmidt said. “Especially with the kind of relationship we built with him from day one.”

All he knows about Clay’s departure is that it was for the safety of his health.

“He and his wife with all the COVID stuff going on around the country and the new spike and stuff…[it’s] just for his health,” Schmidt said. “She didn’t want him risking getting sick on the road and whatnot. That’s all we heard.”

The other Sodbusters co-owner Scott Galusha took over as the head coach for the team’s eight-game road trip, winning five of those games. Schmidt was impressed with how he performed as a coach, especially because he did not “sign up to manage the team.”

“He’s done an amazing job,” Schmidt said. “Kudos to him for doing so good…with coaching, getting everything lined up with hotels, meals and getting uniforms cleaned…We’re all going to miss him as head coach.”

Frew also complimented Galusha. To him, it is a “tough situation to be in.”

“The guys are having fun and the team is still operating well,” Frew said. “I would say he’s done an unbelievably exceptional job.”

On July 11, the Sodbusters announced JM Kelly as the new head coach. He is going into his third year of coaching. This is his first in the Expedition League.

“This is my first year in the Expedition League,” Kelly said. “I was the head coach in the Sunflower League last year.”

Kelly originally was going to be the head coach for another Expedition League team, the Casper Horseheads. They canceled their season because of COVID-19.

“That got canceled when a couple of other teams dropped out,” he said.

Kelly met the team on July 11 after they got back from their road trip. Schmidt was surprised to see that their new coach was close to their age, but he is excited to see how his experience will develop the team.

“I thought it was cool to know that this 24-year-old is our head coach and has been around baseball quite a bit, but only coaching for a few years,” he said. “I mean, it’s always good to have coaches who are older and do more old school, but it’s also good to have a younger guy who can actually relate to you in certain aspects of the game.”

When asked about his hopes for Kelly as a head coach, Frew said he wants this to give him an opportunity to coach at a higher level of baseball.

“We’d like to see our coaches use this opportunity to gain some experience and move their way up the ladder,” he said.

As a coach, Kelly wants to focus more on the players’ development. To him, “that’s why [the kids are] doing this.”

“They want to get better and the biggest [reason they’re playing] is they lost their season. They’re out here trying to get a season back that they didn’t have and trying to get better and trying to produce…It’s about letting them have fun and develop,” he said.

Schmidt understands that it is difficult for fans to get to know the head coach on a personal level, but he believes they will enjoy what he brings to the table.

“Once we start playing with him and getting some success,” he said, “I think the whole fan base will enjoy him as a head coach and they’ll get behind him once this whole thing is going again.”

While the Sodbusters’ season ends in mid-August, Kelly said he wants to focus on everybody enjoying themselves. Winning is also important, but he wants the team to have fun, especially since they were without the sport for four months.

“That’s my goal for them and myself; to get better and to enjoy it.”