Neosho County Community College was supposed to be gearing up for the remainder of the baseball season after Spring Break.
But instead, head coach Steve Murry was working on a project at home Monday.
Like most of the free world, the 34th-year head coach was checking Twitter to see any updates on how the menacing Coronavirus (COVID-19) may impact his world of sports.
At the time, the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference and the National Junior College Athletics Association planned to cancel competition until the beginning of April. The Kansas State High School Activities Association also canceled the rest of the state high school basketball playoffs. This was expected as nearly every sports league in the nation postponed or cancelled some form of competition or training in the foreseeable future after Utah Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11.
Murry, though, was still hopeful for the best outcome, despite the circumstances. Dampening Murry’s spirits that an ideal outcome may come to fruition, his players communicated to each other in a group text message that the NJCAA eventually would cancel the rest of the spring season.
Trying to be positive, Murry implored his student-athletes not to listen to the murmurs until NJCAA made that kind of decision official, despite thousands of Coronavirus cases brewing in the US. But the inevitable was confirmed on Monday: “In light of the progressive evolvement of the COVID-19 situation, the NJCAA has decided to end all competition for the remainder of the academic year...,” NJCAA President and CEO Dr. Christopher Parker said in a statement on the association’s website.
Murry was filled with mixed emotions after his team finished 11-6 on the year — one game better than last season.
“Despair, you know there’s so many moving parts to this whole thing. For instance, everybody says, ‘We’ll just forget the year and start over.’ But you really can’t do that because there’s certain kids who are already graduating and what have you. And so they need to move on,” Murry said. “There’s other kids who already signed with other four-years (colleges) and you look at how that impacts them. Does that team still need them? And so it’s still all getting sorted out as we’re speaking right now. Four-years are going to need more guys because their seniors (may not be) coming back. Juco will return some kids. So the kids that really, really, really get messed up in this are high school seniors because now all of a sudden they don’t get seen. They have no season and we still have to get some of those kids.
“It’s just one of those things where we’ll have to go about trying to replace some of our kids who are going to leave, and yet, there’s no games to go watch. It makes it tough on everybody.”
After the official decision, another issue was that the team already ordered the cancer and autism game jerseys in anticipation of those contests this season – those games were to be played on April 11 and April 25 – so phone calls needed to be made to cancel those orders. Other calls were made to shut down bus companies for travel to and from games.
And with NCCC’s student-athletes currently on an extended spring break – the Panthers were slated to resume regular practice today – Murry and his staff had already halted those plans. However, when the decision was made to cancel all NJCAA sports, another arrangement needed to be made on when to bring players back to move out of the dorm, as the spread of COVID-19 has led to the recommendation that students move out, go home and study online.
Murry, along with his staff, was making all these tough choices while preparing for online classes, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended earlier in the week that for the next eight weeks, no gatherings of 50 or more people should take place, which includes “conferences, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events, weddings, among other types of assemblies.”
Private and federal businesses, as well as schools and institutions of higher learning all over the country have been adjusting to the CDC’s recommendations because of the contagion outbreak, and sports lovers will have to do the same for the time being.
“Life’s not going to stop for anybody, but by the same token, it’s going to be a totally different deal than you’ve ever done,” Murry said. “Let’s just say a kid in Kansas City had a place he was going to work out at, chances are those are going to be closed, also. You’re going to see a lot of kids in their garage throwing into nets and things like that.”
When the NJCAA’s ruling came down, Murry didn’t get a chance to directly speak with his kids, who like many student-athletes across the nation, are likely thinking of ways to train and play America’s pastime in myriad ways in an effort to be the best version of themselves as players. Murry, however, did keep in contact with all players through group messaging, and by Wednesday, he spoke to three players face-to-face on the matter: sophomores Andrew Brautman, Connor Jeffers and Kyler Hancock.
As expected, these players were dejected. Brautman, who finished the year with a .469 average, three home runs and 15 RBIs, which led to Division I and Division II colleges heavily recruiting him, said he was very upset when he found out the news.
“It’s extremely disappointing and devastating. It’s just a mental block at this point because as a team, we were just starting to figure stuff out and this is probably one of the better team chemistry that I’ve had and it was just a lot of fun playing with these guys,” Brautman said. “The fact that we had the season taken away from us because of safety reasons is just heartbreaking. We were just getting started and we had our rough patches on the field, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t turn it around. So, it’s just heartbreaking.”
It was just as upsetting for starting pitcher Taylor Parrett, who culminated the season with 20 strikeouts, a 2.12 earned run average, four total earned runs allowed, five walks and 18 hits given up, and a 3-0 record thanks to his four-seam fastball that ranges from 88 to 92 mph, a curveball that is 74-76 mph, a 78-80 mph slider, and a changeup around 81 mph.
“Honestly, losing the baseball part is going to be hard and obviously it’s not fun when you lose 3/4 of your season, but I think the biggest thing for a lot of us was just the fact that we are losing so many sophomores that didn’t even get to finish out their last year,” Parrett said. “So it was just weird how fast you had to turn around and say goodbye to everybody. And I think that was the hardest than losing the baseball itself.”
Drew Miller, who posted a .419 average with four home runs and 25 RBIs, uttered some of the same sentiments.
“I’m definitely disappointed, to say the least,” Miller said. “I felt like we were getting in our groove a little bit after the Allen series (March 5-7).”
With the spring season cancelled, Murry, a lifetime fitness instructor at NCCC, will teach the rest of spring instruction online.
As eluded to by Murry, another aspect that the COVID-19 has impacted is recruiting. NJCAA banned recruiting until April 15, but Murry and his staff are still putting together lists of talented baseball players around the country in hopes of seeing these student-athletes in the middle of April. Murry can still text and call players, though he said he is giving would-be players some time to take in the ramifications of not playing baseball this year.
And since the season is cancelled for the first time in its history, the NJCAA ruled that “no spring sport student-athlete who was enrolled at a member college in 2020 will be charged a year of participation,” which means Murry will need to figure out who will come back for another year. Jeffers, Brautman, Hancock, Josh Flack, Ben Des Rosiers, Nathan Hungate, Cam Blazek, Chase Curtis, Brant Scrivner, Chaseton Wylie, Khalil Thrasher and Hunter Friederich are all sophomores.
Still, the challenge of those players choosing to return will be credit hours and the uncertainty of providing enough stats and video footage to make it to the next level. As of right now, there isn’t a firm grasp on precisely who will return, but Murry will meet with many of his players on Monday as they move out of the dorm.
Murry said he is disheartened over the whole fiasco.
“I just feel bad for every kid, and it’s not just baseball; it’s softball, it’s regular high school seniors who are going to miss out on proms, graduations, and it’s truly a tragedy,” he said. “But by the same token, if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger. We will all get through it, and probably be better people for it.”