WAVERLY — Wartburg College softball coach Jamie Mueller’s program rose to a level it hadn’t reached in over a decade. The Knights’ tradition-rich baseball program was in the midst of bounce-back start.
It didn’t take a full slate of games to reveal that Wartburg College’s softball and baseball teams had achieved progress entering spring.
The softball team went 9-3 through its season-opening trip to Florida and climbed into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Top 25 for the first time since 2009. Wartburg baseball was 9-1 after its southern swing on the heels of a disappointing 13-26 season in 2019.
These cohesive teams had a chance to bond and flourish, but never stepped foot on their home diamonds for a game. Their seasons were among the thousands canceled due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
Baseball’s home opener was originally scheduled for last Sunday against St. Thomas, while the softball team wasn’t slated to play a home game until the end of the month.
“It’s just one of those things in life that you think would never happen,” Wartburg baseball coach Joel Holst said. “Our field was in good shape and we had a couple practices on the field and then everything is gone.
“We’ve got 12 seniors and we’ve been focused all year on getting things turned around after their junior year not being near what we’re used to in our baseball program. They had a really nice start to their season.”
On the Wartburg softball diamond, the Knights returned a young core from a team that had made a breakthrough run into the 2019 NCAA Tournament. This season’s roster included just three seniors.
“They had that opportunity to go to the NCAA Tournament last year and that was the first time for any of them in this program,” Mueller said, addressing a postseason appearance that finished in the regional round after a pair of one-run losses. “Having that opportunity was really fun and exciting, but it also made them realize that’s not where they wanted it to end. They wanted more from that experience and they were hoping to make it happen this year.”
As the records may indicate, chemistry lessons weren’t needed for the athletes in each program.
“We are just really a lot better,” Holst said. “We had a really good fall. We just had so many young guys playing last year, that experience, we could see that on the field (this season).
“This team was a lot more confident in everything they were doing. There’s no doubt in my mind that they were going to be able to put that together through the next couple months.”
Certainly it has been disheartening for these successful teams to invest time into a season that had barely begun before it was canceled. Summer ball may have added importance for both college baseball and softball players this offseason as they continue to embrace training after a year in which they received limited game reps.
Mueller addressed the challenge of an extended offseason with her players during their postseason meeting.
“I know it’s easy to feel that everything you worked for is now for nothing, but that’s not the case because we still were able to grow as a team,” Mueller said. “We still got better and stronger on the softball field and we still learned a lot about ourselves that we can use moving forward.
“We have two choices here. We can either shut down and not get any better throughout this time or we can still figure out the things that we can work on and get better moving forward, whether that’s our mental game, what we can do physically in the weight room or working on softball skills.
“I think come this time next year that’s what is going to separate the really good teams from the average teams.”
These athletes will now return home and try to make a difference in their communities.
“I think the shock is over and everybody is just trying to figure out how to do their part here related to the emergency situation we’ve got,” Holst said.
Wartburg’s campus is now vacant. A small community of students, athletes and musicians had one of their four years together cut short.
“I think one thing that happens from having teams together is it keeps everybody engaged and it enhances the quality of experience that student-athletes have, and to a certain degree, that their friends have and the spirit that it creates on a campus,” Wartburg athletics director Rick Willis said. “That all sort of comes together to affect the place as a whole. The bottom line is just the disappointment of not having the opportunity. Everybody is in the same situation. You can’t always control what happens, but we have to do the best job we can to control how we respond to it.”
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