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Busy Coaches Find Silver Linings in Season of Unknowns

By Tom Mauldin 4-2-2020

This is — was — a softball season like no other.

It started with so much to look forward to — not just with the 2020 Summer Olympics and the return of softball at the Games, but for every team in all parts of the country. The old saying, “hope springs eternal” is never more true than the start of a softball season.

Consider a few highlights prior mid-March:

  • Team USA was touring the country and playing exhibitions in preparing for the Olympics;

  • Both Washington and Oregon were ranked among Division 1 Top 10 teams;

  • Defending NAIA National Champion Southern Oregon University was ranked No. 1.

  • After losing its first 10, Eastern Oregon was on a three-game winning streak.

  • First year program Warner Pacific has won half of its games.

What a great start to a promised-filled softball season.

Then in a matter of a few days in mid-March, scoreboards that had been displaying runs, hits and errors were shuttered to make room for scoreboards with ominous COVID-19 stats — total cases and deaths.

And just like that, the 2020 college softball season was done. Over. Finished. No more games. Only an asterisk awaits the 2020 softball season.

With its abrupt end comes unknown territory for college coaches, different classroom locations, different time management needs and adjustments for everyone in all walks of life.

  • Will coaches recruiting at a distance be successful?

  • Will students remain connected?

  • Will online classrooms be beneficial?

  • Will players continue to work on enhancing their abilities?

  • Will players follow social distancing guidelines?

And so much more.

The Northwest coaches have circled early August for the Fastpitch Northwest College Exposure Tournament in Centrailia (WA) as well as scheduling time for many other classics around the northwest.

Nathan Ohta, head coach of Warner Pacific’s first-year softball team struggled to get through his final team meeting of the season without tears.

“Meeting with my athletes to tell them their season had been canceled was one of the most difficult things I've done in my 14-year career,” said Ohta. “The decision to cancel the season was absolutely the right one, so there is no resentment. Not playing our games could legitimately allow someone's dad, mom, grandparents to make it through this crisis safe and healthy that otherwise would not have, and that really puts things into perspective.”

College of Idaho head skipper Al Mendiola echoed Ohta’s comments. “They (the players) worked hard on and off the field and to tell them that it's over was difficult. We're a very close family and I was heart broken for all of them especially the seniors.”

The coaches went from instructing their players to goodbye hugs. Locker rooms were empty. Dorms were cleaned out over night. And just like that, campuses resembled ghost towns.

“It's been an adjustment in switching to online course study for all classes,” said James Peterson, head coach at Saint Martin’s University. “All students have been encouraged to move off campus and back home for the remainder of the year.”

Like most colleges, SMU canceled graduation ceremonies.

Every coach interviewed said “staying connected” with their team was “paramount.”

“We will find ways to stay connected as a team while observing social distancing, stay in good mental and physical shape completing individual workouts at home, and communicating with each other often,” said Mayben.

Mendiola said his biggest concern is how his players handle online classes.

“Not having the ability to see the players everyday is difficult. On-line classes can create laziness and its important that the student athletes in our program have enough discipline to continue to work hard as if they were on campus,” said the Yotes longtime coach. “They are still responsible for maintaining a GPA of 3.0 or better and still find time to keep their body in shape so they come back ready to go.”

Mt. Hood College coach Brit Hendrickson says on-line classes can be an obstacle.

“One of the biggest current obstacles I see is making sure that my current student-athletes have the resources to be successful with online learning.”

With no season to coach, they will do what coaches do when a season ends — look to the future. Only this time, the timeline is greatly different.

“I think recruitment for the future is one obstacle for sure,” said Mendiola. “I have always been able to get visits set up and go to (high school) games during the week. Now, I am in the unknown for the future of the program. I have signed some very talented student athletes for the 2021 season. In saying that, I haven't been able to see any 2022 kids to replace the graduates of 2022.”

Like Mendiola, there are no games for Ohta to view, but recruiting must go on regardless of obstacles.

“I’m spending way more time in conversation with athletes,” he said. “We can't have our recruits visit campus, so we have to come up with alternatives that will give them a great look at our school and what the experience of being a part of our team looks like. We can't change the situation, but we can be innovative in how we operate within the current environment, and that is the goal for our coaching staff.”

Once his final meeting of the season ended, Peterson sat down with his staff and mapped out SMU’s game plan. His “A-B-C” list looks like this:

A. Reviewing future recruiting prospects;

B. Talking with players to confirm the online class scenario;

C. Cancelling travel plans;

D. Working on next year schedule and Fall schedule;

E. Reviewing equipment and uniform needs;

F. Doing year-end equipment check-in from players;

G. Preparing off-season workout programs for players;

H. Film review from current season.

And, of course, catch as many summer tournaments as is feasible with time and budget constraints.

The Northwest coaches have circled early August for the Fastpitch Northwest College Exposure Tournament in Centrailia (WA) as well as scheduling time for many other classics around the northwest.

All agree on controlling only what they can control and make the most of silver linings they will find.

Mayben said, “We are creating new ways to stay in contact, and developing better at home workouts that will be implemented over the summers in the future. Coaches are talking and sharing ideas more, while we all navigate this pandemic together.”

He added, “The potential of having spring athletes retain a fifth year of eligibility, although how that looks is unknown it will be good for some athletes.”

For all the coaches, softball isn’t the priority. Winning against the virus is, but the pain of no season lingers. Still, silver linings are needed.

“I am very understanding of the measures that have to take place to create a curve to this virus,” said Hendrickson. “I am already looking forward to them (players) being able to experience it next season.”

Despite the unknowns and fears of COVID-19, Ohta said, “We will get through this. We will be stronger for it, and I know that once we are back on the field, I will have an even greater appreciation for the blessing of being able to be a part of this game.”

People will keep on hoping … hope springs eternal.

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