Labette Cardinals softball head coach Ryan Phillips ripped into his team, huddled up in left field, after splitting a doubleheader against North Iowa Area on March 11. He implored them to live up to preseason hype that had pegged his team as contenders to win a conference title and play to their potential.
A day later, Labette baseball split the first two games of a conference series with Kansas City Kansas. That gave Cardinals first-year head coach Alex Coplon his first KJCCC win and just his third win in what had been a difficult campaign.
For both teams, that was the last time they ever took the field for the 2020 season.
Four days after Labette baseball split with Kansas City Kansas and five after softball split with North Iowa Area, the NJCAA announced that all spring sports were canceled in an effort to stymie the spread of COVID-19.
Update - Following the latest CDC recommendations regarding COVID-19, the @NJCAA has made the difficult decision to cancel all upcoming basketball championships, spring sports competition for the remainder of the academic year.Statement | https://t.co/LDYDr0mMs3 pic.twitter.com/cBG1WZj9zQ— NJCAA (@NJCAA) March 16, 2020
While that decision came less than two weeks ago, the adaptation to a new norm for the Labette baseball and softball players and coaches has slowed time to a crawl.
“The first initial instinct is that it feels so long,” Coplon said. “You spend countless hours with the guys every single day. Even when you’re not physically with them, somebody is texting you or calling you. All that just stopped. We’ve been used to a certain routine for our entire lives. It’s hard to get out of it and make that adjustment.”
Prior to the NJCAA’s decision to cancel all spring sports, the KJCCC and NJCAA had temporarily suspended sports. With the suspension coinciding with spring break at Labette, most players returned home. Now with classes moving online and much of the country encourage to stay at home and practice social distancing, few if any players remain in town.
“I would like to have a face-to-face or team meeting at some point,” Phillips said. “We have to turn in uniforms at some point. We’re hoping for that in late April. Only if we can. It may come down to we have to go to the Villas and pick up their gear and do this all on video chat.”
The common sentiment of shock and grief was felt almost universally across the two rosters at Labette.
“It was pretty unbelievable and caught me off guard. I didn’t really process it until a week or two after it happened,” said Joel Schibi, a freshman third baseman for Labette baseball and a Parsons native. “It’s not a good way to end the season. We barely played at all and we were starting to play better.”
“I don’t think it’s actually hit me that I won’t play again this season,” added Jaylen Hayward, a sophomore outfielder for Labette softball. “I’ve talked to other teammates and we still feel like we’ll play. So we’re just adjusting to normal life. We’ve had the same routine with softball. Now we miss our teammates and want to go back so badly.”
Coplon highlighted the fact that junior college often serves as the last line of defense for student-athletes hoping to continue their academic and athletic pursuits.
“In junior college, there’s a lot of guys that rely on being here because they’re on their last chance,” Coplon said. “They rely on the regimen of that structure. We provide that structure for them whether they wanted it or not. Knowing that you can’t be there for them now is unnerving. It’s the fear of not knowing how my guys are doing.”
Going forward, Coplon and Phillips now face the task of juggling roster management. The NJCAA announced that no spring sports athlete will be charged a year of eligibility.
That means sophomores who were in their last season could return next spring and compete. To counteract a returning sophomore class with an incoming class of recruits, the NJCAA is examining increasing the number of scholarships allowed per team. For baseball and softball, that number is 24 under normal circumstances.
Labette baseball had four sophomores on its roster — Noah Edwards, Jose Madrid, Enrique Serrano and Josh Pralle.
“While there’s so many unanswered questions right now,” Coplon said, “there are kids that are savvy enough to start thinking about those decisions. I’ll never step on a kid’s feet. If a kid wants to move on, I won’t encourage them to stay if they have an opportunity.”
Labette softball had nine sophomores — Adron Durman, Victoria Gonzales, Julia Hawkins, Hayward, Grey Holland, Audrey Miller, Erika Reed, Morgan Schilling and Kaleigh Warren.
Phillips said nobody on the roster has made any formal decision as to whether or not they’ll return but that he’ll welcome any sophomores that wish to return back with open arms.
“I think our sophomore class was doing a great job this year,” Phillips said. “That’s what makes it so heartbreaking. They were turning the corner when it comes to leadership.”
There will be hurdles to overcome for any sophomores that wish to return to Labette that stem from academics and associated costs.
Hayward, a double major in business administration and accounting, presents an anecdotal case that sophomores across the NJCAA landscape will face. The Fair View, Missouri, native was on track to graduate with her two degrees at the end of the spring.
Student-athletes, under normal circumstances, are required to be full-time students to compete. If she chooses to return to Labette, she’d likely be forced to take general education or outright unnecessary classes as well as pay for housing.
“I try to think about it and my head goes in a million different directions,” Hayward said. “If they let me take classes at another university while also attending Labette, I’d love to return and play another season. If I can’t do that, I’d have to pick up another major and basically pay to play softball. I really have no idea. I’m just waiting for some type of answers.”
There’s also the case of Miller, an All-American catcher for Labette softball that signed to Pittsburg State, an NCAA Division II school, last offseason. She was the only baseball or softball player to date to sign to a four-year school.
The NCAA has yet to formally announce that they will not charge a year of eligibility to its spring sports athletes after it canceled the season, but a decision is expected as early as Monday.
If Miller wants to keep her plans and attend Pitt State next year, Pitt State will have to balance her arrival with any potential seniors that return.
“It depends with everything that’s up in the air,” Miller said. “I’ll have to talk with the coaches and see how everything falls into place.”
Pittsburg State did have a senior that platooned time at catcher, Madison Wegner out of Silver Lake, on its roster.
“I don’t know if the senior catcher they have will come back,” Phillips said. “That’ll weigh on whether or not Audrey goes or not. She could come back and figure out what other options are out there.”
Labette Athletic Director Aaron Keal pointed out that many decisions when it comes to roster management will trickle down from the four-year level, the NJCAA and the KJCCC as Phillips and Coplon await clarity.
“We don’t know what the other institutions are going to do either,” Keal said. “They haven’t made their decisions. We’ve heard talks. We haven’t gotten any rulings. Everybody is waiting to see what goes on in our country. If we say we’re allowed to sign all these people and we can’t even start school next year, that could be an issue.”
Labette baseball will likely have an easier time with its roster. While Phillips has 16 signed recruits, Coplon has around a dozen and less than half the sophomores of softball.
“This will all be determined by the final scenario the NJCAA puts forth,” Coplon said. “With some conversations with guys that may or may not return, we’re pretty comfortable with where we’re at. We’re not overly concerned from a numbers standpoint.”
The college’s willingness to fund increased scholarships will also come into play.
“The NJCAA could say we could give 36 scholarships, but can our school afford that? It’ll come down to each individual institution,” Phillips said. “It’s hard to set anything in stone until the national office makes that decision.”
There’s also the issue of incoming high school recruits that will be freshmen next year. Under normal circumstances, any prospect that signed a Letter of Intent is bound to that school for a full year unless they’re released by the institution. Now that the landscape of the roster has changed — for example, an incoming catcher for Labette softball that expected to compete for a starting spot now faces the possibility of burning a year sitting behind Miller — Coplon and Phillips will have to manage any concerns that arise.
“We obviously have a big class coming in because we were losing a big class,” Phillips said. “We could redshirt a kid that comes in. That could be an option. If they wouldn’t want to look at that, then we’ll figure it out.”
As Labette awaits decisions from the national office and the conference on scholarship limits for the spring, Coplon and Phillips are also keeping their players on track academically and emotionally.
Labette has suspended all in-person classes for the remainder of the spring semester and will wrap up the school year by moving classes online and through other remote formats.
“I’m telling the guys to check their student e-mails multiple times a day,” Coplon said. “I know some classes will be different than others. I don’t want the guys missing anything.”
Mental health has been another point of emphasis for both programs. Miller admitted that the sudden change in daily routine has worn on her.
“It’s hard to stay motivated,” Miller said. “It’s just boring. You can’t walk down the hallways and see friends. So it’s been hard. But we’re getting there.”
Schibi said he’s still working out through the stoppage.
“Not getting to go to practice every day, it feels completely different,” Schibi said. “I still try to do as much as I can, but it’s tough. I don’t stay nearly as busy and I get a little bored at times. It just sucks I can’t play baseball.”
Hayward said the acclimation to life without softball for the spring has been difficult.
“I feel like I’m 20 pounds heavier now, I’m really out of shape,” Hayward said. “I haven’t maintained a good diet. It just hasn’t really hit me. I’ve been upset, but I don’t think the fact that I could’ve played my last game has hit me. I can’t comprehend it. I honestly try not to think about it.”
Phillips has done his best to send workout routines that can be performed at home.
“I’ve been giving the options of milk jugs full of water or other variations to workouts they can do in their home,” Phillips said. “We’re just trying to have a new normal.”
Coplon worries about the amount of cobwebs he’ll have to shake off his players whenever sports finally resume nationwide and he’s able to hold practices.
“There’s going to be guys that haven’t been able to get reps in the weight room or in the cages because of the availability of those types of things,” Coplon said. “But obviously there’s bigger problems out there than kids throwing bullpens, of course.”
Ultimately, Phillips, Coplon, Keal, Labette and the entire country are in purgatory waiting on decisions from the NJCAA to figure out how to proceed.
“I think the NJCAA needs to take their time to get it right,” Phillips said. “Whether that’s till the end of the semester, they need to get it right and find middle ground that’s understandable.”
Keal ensured that the school will fight for what’s best for every baseball and softball athlete affected by the cancellation.
“We’re going to take care of our kids as best we possibly can,” Keal said. “We’ll do what’s right. We’ve just got to work through all the mess we’re in right now.”
Keal also believes the NJCAA will be flexible in accommodating any sophomores that wish to return.
“I’m guessing they’ll do everything in their power to help kids in those situations,” Keal said. “But we have no answer yet. There’s been so many discussions we’ve had and they’re trying to do the right thing.”
While the light at the end of this coronavirus tunnel may not be visible yet, Phillips and Coplon both know that, at some point, their programs will resume. Baseball and softball will be played.
When that happens, both expect their players to be more motivated than ever.
“I would hope the revving up would come on their end,” Phillips said. “They’ve seen firsthand that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. We could have another pandemic. A war could break out. This is an eye-opener. That first day in is going to be a pretty amped up practice on my behalf.”