By: Taylor Riemersma and Nick Schreiter
It’s a hot and sunny June afternoon in Omaha, Nebraska. The best teams from all over the country have come to play. Sweat is dripping down their foreheads and they’ve had to put on their favorite pair of sunglasses to shield their eyes from the bright sun. The classic “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is playing over the sound system while the smell of hot dogs and nachos overtakes the senses. This is the College World Series in Omaha.
Except COVID canceled college baseball in March and caused a lot of uncertainty. As the fall term closes out, many sports, including baseball, are still struggling to find a path to competition.
With changes for the upcoming spring baseball season on the horizon, whether that’s from a coaching or playing aspect, coaches and players alike have tried to keep a positive attitude with a greater appreciation for the game they love and getting back on the field.
March 11: NBA suspends its season, Ivy League cancels remainder of spring athletic events
When news of the pandemic hit in mid March, coaches and athletes were surprised to find out about the season’s cancellation.
“It was completely out of the blue,” said Chase Cheek, a graduate student and outfielder for the Duke University baseball team. “We were dumbfounded.”
Cheek recalled being on the field starting practice when the team received an email from Duke’s president of that the season was canceled.
Duke’s Head Baseball Coach Chris Pollard said he was shocked and felt numb because of the season’s cancellation.
“It was as surreal a day as I have ever had in my entire life,” he said.
Some players heard about the cancellations even before their coaches were aware of them. Other universities sent out tweets and posted on social media about the cancellation of sports before the athletic departments had time to react or learn of what was happening.
“That day, everything was kind of unfolding in such a way where it was like a snowball going downhill that I literally picked up the phone and called my immediate supervisor who’s an senior associate AD, and I called our senior associate AD for compliance,” Pollard said, adding that neither of them knew about athletics being suspended.
“It (had already( gone out on social media but not everybody was aware yet,” Pollar said. “They said, ‘Hey, listen, keep practicing. We’ll do some research and get back (to you).’ So, we started practice and about 30 minutes later, I got a call saying, ‘We did confirm that all athletic activities have been suspended,’ so we pulled the guys off the field. We brought them into the locker room.”
This confusion around the sports world included the Big Ten canceling its basketball tournament after playing two games on Wednesday, March 11. Viewers could see this happening on the Big Ten pregame basketball show. While the conference had sent out the announcement that Big Ten sports were canceled, the message was not relayed to the TV crew getting ready to cover the game. Approximately 20 minutes after the conference made the announcement, word was sent to the broadcasters to halt.
March 12: NCAA cancels all remaining winter and spring sports championships, Final college baseball game of the season
No one knew what to make of this announcement. The NCAA basketball tournament had been played every season since 1939 for men and 1982 for women. The College World Series has crowned a champion every year since 1947. Now, for the first time in history, no champion would be crowned because of a novel virus spreading across the globe.
Before the season was canceled, Miami (OH) beat Penn State 5-1, in what is now known as the final game of the short 2020 season. A mere 112 spectators witnessed this Miami victory, unaware of what was to come next in the sporting world.
In the blink of an eye, college students and athletes were sent home. Many in the athletic departments across the country lost their jobs or were furloughed. Coaches and athletes scrambled to figure out what to do next. Baseball coaches typically recruit during the summer, and athletes train and play in summer league games, but the state of the pandemic is too dangerous for regular activities to take place.
May 15: Bowling Green becomes the first college to cut its college baseball program
Collegiate athletic departments had to make tough decisions when faced with budget cuts. As part of a $2 million shortfall, the athletic department at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University decided to cut its baseball program.
Funding wasn’t the only thing affecting baseball programs and athletic departments. Coaches were struggling to recruit with the flash of a change.
University of Nebraska-Omaha Assistant Head Coach Brian Strawn said they have not been able to recruit in-person since March.
“This provides a real hurdle when trying to evaluate talent,” he said. “Recruiting is done 100% through computers and phones for the time being.”
High school baseball was also in a chaotic state for a while as nearly every city and state had different guidelines to play amid a pandemic. Some states continued to hold high school baseball state tournaments, such as in Iowa, but Nebraska’s governing body decided to cancel its high school championships. This created issues on the amount of footage for high school players in different states being recruited.
July 2: Boise State drops baseball one year after resurrecting the program
Boise State University dropped its baseball program in 1980 until they decided to try and give the sport another chance in 2019. Plans were also in the works for a new baseball stadium until the pandemic hit and all of this forward progress came to a screeching halt.
“Today’s decision came after an extensive review and in-depth analysis of the athletics department’s budgets and programs by several senior leaders,” Boise State University President Dr. Marlene Tromp said in a statement. “The university had already been working closely with athletics to create a sustainable budget. The pandemic has made a challenging financial situation unsustainable.”
July 16: NCAA releases protocols for returning to practice
As the fall semester began, changes were evident among Coastal Carolina University’s baseball team, said sophomore infielder Cooper Weiss.
“We haven’t been able to use our locker room,” he said. “We have a lot of new guys, transfers that transferred in or freshman.”
He continued: “You get to learn about guys — what they are like on and off the field, and we haven’t had that. It’s affected how I can interact with others in a more personal way like last year.”
Like most schools facing similar restrictions, UNO athletics has decreased locker room access, added restrictions to the training and weight room, and required masks at every practice, along with socially distancing.
The COVID protocols posted on the NCAA website include health and safety guidelines for players exposed to someone who have tested positive for the coronavirus and suggest that training should occur outdoors and masks should be worn.
July 23: Hope shows for college sports as MLB starts its 60-game season
This year, seasons for teams such as the Hastings Sodbusters and Fremont Moo — of the Expedition League, which has six teams in three states — began two days after what was supposed to be the end of the College World Series. This has helped provide coaches with material to analyze for recruiting, mostly for players already competing in college baseball. These Expedition League teams are generally made up of collegiate players who need a place to play in the summer.
For baseball players who weren’t playing in a summer league, they focused on improving themselves, just in different ways.
“We normally don’t get that amount of time to have off, so with that time, I worked out and worked on my nutrition trying to get my body right,” said Coastal Carolina sophomore pitcher Nick Parker.
Some players certainly saw the season cancellation as a negative, but others saw it as a growth opportunity. Weiss took this opportunity to work out in a gym in Arizona. He met with many other players around the country who were influential to his baseball career.
“I used this time to set myself apart and gain a lot of knowledge that I wouldn’t have if not for the shutdown. I was able to be influenced positively during the shutdown,” he said.
Coastal Carolina’s Head Baseball Coach Gary Gilmore said parts of his job will have to change in response to the pandemic.
“As far as philosophically, how you put a team together and what you’re trying to do to create a complete team, I don’t think philosophically necessarily will it change,” he said. “How we have to go about it, absolutely. We’re being forced every day to change how we’ve done things for years and years. Some of it will be things and pieces that you hang on to and continue to use moving forward.”
For Louisiana State University’s hitting coach Eddie Smith, time together as a team has been “very limited.”
“I know usually we try to do as much together as we possibly can to create that team mindset, to promote team play for each other, work-together-type values in our team,” Smith said. “Quite frankly, we just can’t do that at the rate we want to. We can’t even have a full scrimmage with a whole team on the field at the same time with the current conditions.”
September 17: University of Nebraska-Lincoln opens fall baseball begins fall scrimmage
Will Bolt, University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s head baseball coach, said in a September press conference that once his players were able to play in the summer leagues and get back into their routines, the spirits of the players picked up. In the fall, the Huskers have been able to start training and playing in fall scrimmages.
Even with a return to play, there still remains some frustration among Nebraska players, fans and staff. Multiple confidential sources reported that only Nebraska football players are able to use the Training Table, a separate dining hall complex within Memorial Stadium that provides student athletes the nutrition they need. Without the Training Table, some student athletes have trouble trying to maintain their nutritional needs.
September 26: Creighton, Duke baseball begins fall scrimmage
While many coaches have been avid proponents of playing sports during a pandemic, as sports are a return to normalcy, others say the impact on athletes is insignificant compared to the impact of on normal lives.
“I think ultimately when it gets to on-the field coaching, the biggest thing that COVID has done is just renew my sense of gratitude for being able to coach, being out there on the field,” Pollard said. “Having that experience taken away from us for several months, I don’t take it for granted that we’re able to get out there on a field together day in and day out and do what we love to do.”
September 30: LSU begins fall scrimmage; will continue through November 10
In the future, players, coaches and fans may not be sure what to expect for the upcoming collegiate baseball season — like many things during these times. But one thing is for sure: many are rooting for its return.
Strawn said that the spring season will be different than any other season because of this uncertainty.
“The highlights for me are simply waking up every morning and coming out here and being around these kids and realizing how blessed I am to be around them and have my family and have such a great school to work for,” Gilmore said.