They had a few weeks of practice last March before masks and social distancing became part of the norm.
But that’s all high school baseball coaches and players in Illinois could enjoy before their seasons were canceled last spring amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Needless to say, area coaches are more than eager for the start of their 2021 season. For a multitude of reasons.
“What I am looking forward to is just to be out at the ballpark again,” Danville coach Mike Dokey said. “The feel of being on the diamond again and watching kids enjoy playing the game of baseball.”
Amen to that.
Their seasons get going on April 5 with the first official day of practices. Games can begin after teams have seven practices in. So, by mid-April, the steady staccato of playing catch, batting practice and cleats scraping in the dugout will become a familiar refrain.
And, even more good news: baseball, like other summer outdoor sports that will fall under the IHSA banner in this most unusual of school years, will get a chance a state tournament in mid-June.
“We have a special group,” said Josh Haley, St. Joseph-Ogden’s coach who guided the Spartans to state runner-up finishes in Class 2A in 2016 and 2017 and features Illinois pitching commit Crayton Burnett this spring. “I can’t wait for the preseason practice, the grind of the regular season and then finally competing in a postseason with a group that has waited two years for the opportunity.”
First-year Centennial baseball coach Sam Flowers gets to fill out his first lineup card in charge of the Chargers on April 12 at SJ-O.
“I really want to see the return for all the hard work the guys have put in during the offseason when we got cleared to work out,” Flowers said. “They have done everything me and my coaching staff have asked of them to get better and be prepared for the season. I just want to see how far this talented group of guys can go.”
For others, it’s just the simple things spring usually brings. And ones they missed out on in 2020.
“I am looking forward to throwing lots of batting practice and hitting tons of fungoes,” veteran Fisher coach Milt Kelly said. “It will be great to see old friends who are coaches and umpires also.”
See? Even coaches appreciate umpires.
Just up the road from Fisher, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley coach Dustin White is used to having multi-sport athletes on his roster. But the talented GCMS football team won’t have any overlap with baseball season this spring, creating more opportunities for his baseball players to experience as full a season as possible.
“It has been a long time since the kids in these spring sports got to play,” White said. “I can’t wait to see how excited our guys are for each and every practice, game and interaction with each other.”
Villa Grove/Heritage coach Jason Conn, Champaign Central coach John Staab and Mahomet-Seymour coach Nic DiFilippo all echo that sentiment.
Conn: “We have a great group of players that like being around each other and have a passion for the game.”
Staab: “The one item I am looking forward to the most is working with my players and coaches on a daily basis and building those relationships.”
DiFilippo: “There’s nothing better than seeing the smile on a kid’s face and the excitement he has when he makes a web gem in the field or comes through with a big hit.”
Unity coach Tom Kimball shares those thoughts as well, but has another reason to enjoy the upcoming spring.
“Getting out on our newly turfed field to play a game,” he said.
For Brandon McFarland, this spring represents a chance to come full circle. The first-year Urbana coach used to star for the Tigers and is familiar with his current roster after coaching them in middle school.
“They all love the game, and it is very encouraging and joyful to see how much they missed being around each other,” McFarland said. “Their attitudes have been amazing through it all, and it really has changed me as a coach. They deserve this opportunity, and I know they will make the most of it.”