Even when the chances of a spring baseball season appeared bleak, Athens baseball coach Todd Nuzum always remained hopeful that his Bulldogs might still have an opportunity to take the field together again.
Nearly three months since their last practice, the wait is finally over for Nuzum and the Athens baseball team.
Athens will take the field on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Meigs High School to start a run of summer baseball games.
The Bulldogs had dreamed of stretching their high school season into June and the Ohio High School Athletic Association state tournament. While this isn’t the version of June baseball they hoped for back in the winter, the group is ready to return to the field however they can.
The OHSAA officially canceled the spring season on April 20th due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The legion baseball season was also canceled soon after.
A ray of hope emerged when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced in May that low/non-contact sports could resume, following safety guidelines. That cleared the way for Nuzum to try and find a path back to the baseball diamond.
“We just stayed in contact with the kids and basically, as baseball wasn’t being played, we just kept in contact and all were gung-ho about being able to play,” Nuzum said. “Original plan was they were all going to play legion baseball. Once that was canceled we asked them if they wanted to do some independent stuff and schedule some games. They were all for it.”
The Bulldogs were set for what could have been a banner season last spring, had they been able to play. Athens won a district championship last season, and only lost two starters to graduation. The rest of the squad, with 10 seniors, was returning.
The independent summer schedule gives the Bulldogs a chance to end their careers playing together.
“To lose our senior season like that, it was obviously very sad,” Nate Trainer said. “But to know we’ll be able to do something, we’ll be able to play together one last time although modified, it’s still good. We’re all excited.
“The core of this group has played together since we were seven years old,” he added. “I don’t think any of us want to end it without any final sort of....really just playing together.”
Trainer, who won the Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year awards as a junior in 2019, is one of eight recent Athens High School graduates to make up the roster.
“It’s kind of like a final send off,” Trainer said. “We’re all looking forward to it.”
The immediate challenge for the team has been getting properly prepared for Tuesday’s opener. Athens has been able to practice, per the governor’s ruling, since May 26.
Getting the pitching arms and the bats into game shape after more than two months off is an obstacle, but Athens has also had to do it without the benefit of its home Rannow Field.
The team was still waiting to get the go ahead to use Rannow Field as of late last week. So Nuzum and the Bulldogs have been trying to prepare for the season however they can.
“We’re just trying to get out as much as we can,” he said. “Find any green space and try to get the arms in shape, swing the bats a little bit. Just come out here and have some fun, hope no one gets hurt.”
Athens will be mostly road warriors this summer. The team has 17 dates scheduled on the calendar, and only three are at home.
The opening week has games at Meigs on Tuesday and Thursday, and at Lancaster on Saturday.
The first home game is scheduled against Parkersburg on June 21.
“We were going in and hitting and doing stuff, but it’s hard to simulate real baseball,” Trainer said of the preparation. “We don’t have a field or anything. There might be a little adjustment, but I think we’ll be able to get our feet back under us.”
Nuzum is joined on the coaching staff Matt Trainer, Kyle Lonas, Rick Crossen and Cody Sutton.
The schedule came together on the fly, as other coaches and schools in Southeast Ohio and across the state tried to get teams together so athletes had a chance to play baseball after their high school seasons were lost.
“I think they’re really trying hard to do something,” Nuzum said of the coaches in the area.
“We’re going to go play in a tournament in Beavers Field (in Lancaster),” Nuzum said. “Some good teams — Steubenville, Lancaster, Utica, some really good teams. Chillicothe is having a tournament at the VA. We’ll play Meigs, Marietta, Warren — should be very competitive.”
Athens last played Warren in 2019’s Division II Southeast District final. Peyton Gail hit a walk-off, two-run double for the extra-inning victory. It was likely the two rivals would have seen each other again in the 2020 tournament.
“Excited to play Warren again,” Trainer said. “Saw they were on there. Didn’t get to play Jackson last year either. Playing them, so those two games should be fun, and the tournaments especially, just looking forward to that competitive type atmosphere.”
Athens won’t lack for pitching, once the arms work back into game shape. Trainer is joined by lefty Jack Cornwell, who would have entered his third season as Athens’ ace last year.
Preston Hayes also returns as a 2019 high school graduate. He teamed with Cornwell as Athens’ pitching duo in 2018 before playing at IMG in Florida last season.
Rece Lonas and Reese Wallace are also pitchers with experience.
“I think that’s the strength of our team for sure,” Trainer said.
Trainer and Lonas were both starters on a district title team as freshmen. Eli Kennedy, a 2019 Athens graduate and first baseman, is also playing.
Carson Baker will handle the majority of the catching duties, while Andrew Stephens and Aiden Kostival are also returning starters. Gail is one of five rising seniors who is playing, as he will once again patrol center field.
“These kids are very competitive,” Nuzum said. “I don’t have to stress winning to them, because they want to win. We just want to come out here and have some fun as a group. Since we didn’t get to spend the spring together, just have a fun summer, a 20-25 game season.”
Chris Stewart — who led Athens to back-to-back district titles in 2016 and 2017 — is coaching a junior team. Younger Bulldogs will also get a chance to make up for lost time this summer.
The season stretches into July, as the senior independent team has its last scheduled game on July 12.
The Bulldogs never got a chance to defend their league or district crowns over the last two months. While it was a difficult situation, Trainer said the team has kept things in perspective.
“The strategy I’ve taken is looking at the big picture,” Trainer said. “We’re dealing with this, but so are people all across this country. Not just us. There’s bigger issues coming from this too. So I think the main thing is trying to stay positive, and we do have this summer baseball, so patience has been rewarded a little bit.”
Athens will look to win as much as it can as the 2020 seniors play their final games together. Nuzum said it can provide some closure for the group.
“Being together one last time, 10 seniors, I think it’s great,” he said. “I know I’m going to enjoy being around them.”