The COVID-19 outbreak is impacting life as we know it. Among those drastically affected are the spring student-athletes.
Virginia Tech baseball was 16 games into its season when it received the news from the ACC that all athletic events for the 2019-2020 academic year were suspended on March 12 and then subsequently canceled five days later.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” head coach John Szefc said. “Obviously it’s an unprecedented thing.”
Szefc and Co. were preparing for a critical weekend home series against No. 5 Miami when the domino effect of sporting events being canceled started to flow throughout the collegiate athletics landscape. Meanwhile, the Hokies were going to continue practicing until someone told them differently.
On Thursday, March 12, the team had a weightlifting session in the afternoon before learning that the Miami series was off. The news only continued to get worse from there.
“That was late Thursday afternoon, we just told the guys we’re not going to play,” Szefc said. “Miami’s not coming and we did know that.
“We got back together on Friday, when we had a pretty good feel for what was going to happen. We decided it was in the best interest of everyone, and we told our guys they were more than welcome to stay on campus and utilize the facilities – because at the time that was an option – or they could go home. On Thursday you were practicing and by Saturday the season was over. Kind of bizarre.”
So what was the tipping point for Szefc when he knew the season might be in serious jeopardy? It occurred Thursday night when the NCAA canceled the College World Series due to health threats.
“The thing I think that turned the Division I baseball world upside down was when the postseason NCAA tournament was canceled,” Szefc said. “Once that happened, that’s what people play for. They play to win championships, they play for the postseason, and once you take that away, a lot of players it was like taking the air out of the balloon there.”
It was a tough message for Szefc to deliver to his players over the course of those few days. It brought out some raw emotions for everyone who was robbed of playing the game they love. The most crushing blow was the season coming to an end with no closure.
“They were in disbelief,” Szefc said. “You would never expect something like that to happen. Who would ever expect it? We played a game on Wednesday and by Saturday everyone was packing up their stuff to go home. To me, it felt like June where the season was over. It still does. It feels like June, but when you look at the calendar it’s actually March. You’re trying to really get a feel for what it is.
“That’s tough. You do a lot together. You do everything together since August.”
Virginia Tech’s four seniors of Reagan Teegarden, Tanner Thomas, Peyton Alford, and Jaison Heard face the most uncertain times ahead.
All indications point toward spring student-athletes regaining another year of eligibility, but it’s never really that cut and dry with the NCAA. The NCAA committee will hold a session on Monday, March 30 to decide the future of these athletes and if they’ll receive eligibility relief.
“It is what’s right,” Szefc said. “It might not be right from a financial perspective, but at least in our sport we played 16 games, which is less than a third of the season. And not that every one of those guys played in every one of those games. If I was a player or I was a parent of a player, I think it would be right for those guys to have another year of eligibility. To me it seems that would be the right thing to do as far as taking care of the player. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing here I think. That’s what I’m always told.
“Hopefully that happens. That’s certainly what needs to happen. I’ll say that. I don’t think anyone could argue with that. You’re talking about people’s life plans changing overnight.”
There’s a lot of question marks moving forward for all the sports, but right now Szefc and his staff are monitoring the players academically as they partake in the virtual class format. Strength and conditioning coach Brian Neal has sent out body weight exercises focused around the old fashioned way of working out with body weight squats, push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups.
Above all else, Szefc emphasized to his players that this isn’t a point to get too far away from the game. The majority of players are expected to play in the summer baseball leagues that are still on at this moment.
Virginia Tech ended the 2020 season with an 11-5 record. The Hokies were 8-0 at home. Though COVID-19 threw the final curveball, there were still many memorable moments that stick out in Szefc’s mind.
“Two things that really gave me an awful lot of respect for the group was after losing that first game in Louisiana, the guys staying locked in and winning that series on the back of Peyton Alford finishing game two,” Szefc said. “And then in Georgia Tech where we had two pretty rough days to begin that series and we gave up a lead that we had in game three. It would have been pretty easy for our guys to say, ‘OK, this is an awful weekend. We’ll pack it in and get on the bus.’ That didn’t happen. They battled through it and won game three. That really got the group going.
“It was going to start to get real with the ACC schedule, but I think they were set up pretty good after 16 games to have success. If we took the next step and cleaned up a couple areas we would have been in a good place.”
Moving forward, the shortened season potentially had the biggest impact on the freshmen who played less than a third of the season. It’s typically down the stretch in ACC play that these young players really find their form and grow into a comfort zone, but that experience was lost.
Still, Szefc continued his culture of work and accountability in the shortened season and saw an influx of talent and depth that was missing in years past. It sets the atmosphere for a bright future as the Hokies stay set on building it in Blacksburg.
“I think the player personnel was better, culture took another step forward, and when you recruit you’re always planning for the next season, so I don’t think this thing will really affect us too terribly because we have player personnel in place for next season,” Szefc said. “If we’re fortunate enough to get some of the seniors back, that will only make our player personnel better… We’ll keep moving forward.”
The promise of the future doesn’t take away the sting from missing out on watching Ian Seymour make even the best ACC batters look silly. The southpaw struck out 14 Georgia Tech batters, a Virginia Tech ACC record, and fanned 40 batters over 20.1 innings pitched, good for 17.70 strikeouts per nine innings – that was fourth in the nation.
It doesn’t take away the sting from missing out on watching Carson Taylor be a living nightmare for opposing pitchers with a .431 batting average and 1.231 OPS (for reference) through 16 games.
And it doesn’t take away the sting of missing out on the camaraderie that the 2020 version of Virginia Tech baseball had from the ham and eggs double plays up the middle to the celebration from batter to bench after a big hit. Instead, it just leaves a level of mystery about what could have been.
“People will always look back at the 2020 season with a ton of mystery,” Szefc said. “It will be the mysterious season for a lot of reasons. Whether you believe that or not or think that’s corny or not, I think there’s something to that, there’s something interesting about that. People are always going to sit there and talk about, ‘Well, if this would have happened or that would have happened.’ It’s always you’ll never know. It will be one big cloud of mystery. That’s a little cool in a way if you’re trying to take something positive away from it because hopefully it will never happen again. You just have to deal with it and keep the mystery in your back pocket.”