A Season Unlike Any Other: How COVID-19 is Impacting the 2021 College Baseball Season

Written by Brien Krug
Turks Staff Writer
March 23, 2021

“Shocked”, this was the response that Jimmy Jackson, a 6-year Associate Head Coach and Pitching Coach for the JMU Dukes Baseball Team, had when asked what his initial reaction was to the news that broke on March 12th, 2020. About a year ago to date the world was put on pause, as COVID-19 started to evolve from just another virus to a world-wide pandemic. The NCAA along with other major sports leagues like the NBA, NHL and MLB were forced to either postpone or cancel the remainder of their 2020 seasons. This not only left coaches “shocked” but also left the collegiate athletes stunned and devastated.

The Dukes had just come off a big 4-2 win at Maryland and redshirt junior pitcher Liam McDonnell recalled the team being somewhat excited about the news. “All that we knew were that classes were cancelled. So everyone was like alright we’re gonna go here, play baseball and not have to do class.” Redshirt junior outfielder for the JMU baseball team, Conor Hartigan, recalls the day like it was yesterday. Hartigan was actually taking the day off to rest for the upcoming weekend series against Niagara University not knowing it would be his last opportunity to practice for the year. “Everything happened so fast,” said Hartigan, “First they postponed our weekend game, then it was you can only play conference games, then it was your season is over .” Following the news there was a lot of disappointment , especially for the seniors. “It was pretty heartbreaking for those guys,” stated Michael Morgan, a redshirt junior catcher for the Dukes, “and even for us it was tough to take in the news.” However, after the dust settled it was time for the players to get back to work.

With the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic came closures of a lot of gyms, training facilities and summer leagues. During this time period it was difficult for the players to workout. In order to stay in good shape some players like Conor Hartigan would curl baskets of rocks, squat boulders and flip tires, “I was just doing anything I could” said Hartigan. Eventually gyms re-opened and collegiate summer baseball leagues started popping up. Both Hartigan and Morgan played in the Northern Virginia College League (NVCL), which featured 8 teams and 174 players from 83 different colleges and universities in its inaugural year. Meanwhile, Liam McDonnell stayed local and played in the Rockingham County Baseball League. This league was mainly a men’s league but with all the collegiate summer leagues getting cancelled a lot of players followed McDonnell. “We were all pretty grateful for that, to be able to stay on our feet and play,” proclaimed Hartigan. These collegiate leagues ran all the way to the beginning of August which led right into the off-season.

Along with almost every aspect of life during COVID, the college off-season for JMU had to be altered to adhere to new COVID-19 protocols. “Everything was very odd,” said Coach Jackson, “there were 3-4 lift groups compared to two and on the field we were in small groups for an extended period of time.” The team also had to go through an extended quarantine as players and close contacts began to test positive for the virus. “I think we were the last team on campus to start practice,” explained Jackson. He admits that it was looking bad for the program to start the off-season but there was a positive to it, “Once we did start [practice] we were one of the only teams to not have a shutdown period.” So after the initial COVID shutdown the team was able to power through all the way to the Thanksgiving break. “The whole process has been different to say the least,” Coach Jackson said.

Just about 1 month into the 2021 spring season 39 series/games have been either postponed or cancelled across the NCAA. Universities have been ramping up COVID protocols resulting in major changes to how the team operates. One of the most noticeable changes was the introduction of Kinexon Player Tracking devices. These devices use new technology to identify when players are within 6-feet of each other for an extended period of time. The device can either blink red or start to beep. “I would be standing in a bullpen and if I walk too close and start talking to a teammate for a couple seconds the device would start beeping,” exclaimed Jackson. Procedures for road trips have also been modified. For example, the team has to leave the morning of a game rather than the day before in order to limit the time spent in the hotel. There are no team meals at a restaurant, rather all the food is either carry-out or delivered to the hotel. In addition, roommate selections have changed as well. “We may have a freshman pitcher travel and put him with someone who is older,” said Jackson, “now we put guys on the road with their actual roommate from home because if someone were to test positive or start to experience symptoms your gonna take down your roommate anyway so you may as well stay with your roommate.” The last change in road trip procedures is the frequency of COVID testing. The players are tested twice a week on the week of road trips with the first test coming right before the team leaves on Friday morning and again on the Monday they return. Major adjustments have also been made to the dugout and seating arrangements for players, JMU coaches and managers took painters tape and marked off 32 spaces where players would be allowed to sit or stand in the dugout, down the left field line or in the bullpen. Also, just like in the 2020 MLB season, JMU has been using the stands as an extension of the dugout.

All these changes have been tough for the players and coaches but the Dukes have yet to have any trouble so far in this young season. “Everybody is pretty focused on our goal,” said Morgan. This goal of course is the big prize, a CAA championship and a trip to Omaha and the College World Series. “This is what we have practiced for. This is what we are playing for,” Coach Jackson said. “We have a lot of older guys and a few seniors that came back from last year,” Morgan said, “we’ll have a very experienced lineup and a handful of experienced pitchers so if we can put it all together we can have a lot of success.” We’ll see if the Dukes can put everything together and reach college baseball’s highest honor for the first time since 1983, while also battling the invisible opponent.