By the time the Utah Valley baseball team takes the field for their season opener on Feb. 19 against Saint Mary’s in Moraga, California, it will have been 345 days since they last faced an opponent in a game that counts.
COVID-19 ended the 2020 season abruptly, just days before the Wolverines were set to host their first game at the newly-renovated UCCU Ballpark, where new artificial turf was installed during the previous off-season. When UVU hosts Sacramento State on March 19, it will be the first collegiate game played there in nearly two years.
The Wolverines played just 19 of their 54 scheduled games in 2020, posting a 5-14 record, but the players believe things were starting to click for the team just as the season was canceled.
“I think the season would’ve turned [around],” said sophomore infielder Mick Madsen, son of head coach Eric Madsen. “A lot of guys learned the last two weekends [of the season] that we were a team that could compete. I think it’s given the guys excitement about this new year to be able to do it again.”
Senior right-handed pitcher Jesse Schmit was voted to the preseason all-WAC team. Schmit is grateful for the honor but understands it means nothing if his performance doesn’t back it up.
“It’s a great honor to have, but it’s still preseason,” said Schmit. “I still have to go out there and perform and give ourselves a chance to win.”
Schmit logged a 1.08 ERA over 25 innings pitched in 2020 and credits his success to staying locked in mentally and having the full support of his teammates whenever he took the mound. “Whenever I went out there, I always just wanted to give the team a chance to win and not make the situations bigger than they were in my head, and the guys were always behind me giving support.”
Since the pandemic forced the spring sports season to end early, each athlete was offered an extra year of eligibility. This allowed seniors such as Schmit, infielder Kade Poulsen, and outfielder Alexander “Xander” Marco the opportunity to return and play a full senior season.
Marco said it was a blessing in disguise because, like a number of players on the team, he was struggling through the first month of the 2020 season. Marco posted a .179 batting average in 2020 after hitting .297 as a junior in 2019.
Poulsen echoed those same sentiments saying, “I think now we’re more grateful to be out there every day and have a way better perspective on things.”
The team returns all but two players from the 2020 roster, in addition to incoming freshmen who graduated in the class of 2020. Many of those incoming freshmen are local products, such as infielder Kyle Coburn. Coburn prepped at Salem Hills High School where he was a four-time all-state honoree.
The offseason was full of makeshift workouts for many of the players. Practice facilities were closed for most of the summer, meaning players were on their own to stay in shape. Madsen and Schmit were able to put together makeshift gyms in their backyards, while Marco was able to go out to a field in his hometown of Las Vegas with his dad to take batting practice. “The first couple of months were a struggle, but I was able to get as much done as possible,” said Marco.
As the season gets under way, playing baseball during a pandemic means adjustments will have to be made. Throughout the preseason, players have been split into two locker rooms, allowing for social distancing guidelines to be followed, and masks have been worn during practices. Marco said that it’s been a team effort to make sure everybody follows guidelines so the team can play a full season.
To maximize the number of games each team can play while minimizing travel, the WAC elected to shift from three-game series to four-game series for the 2021 season. Each series will take place over three days, with one game scheduled each Friday and Sunday and a doubleheader on Saturday.
Coming into the 2021 season, the goal for the Wolverines, like all other Division I teams, remains the same: Omaha and the College World Series. The Wolverines last made the postseason in 2016, where they lost in the Baton Rouge regional to LSU. While the last few seasons haven’t gone as the Wolverines would have hoped, this team certainly has the drive and determination to push through whatever 2021 might bring their way.