It hit like a tsunami.
In the sporting world, the NBA was the first to fall, postponing its season March 11 after the fears of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
In the age of international air travel the virus spread from Wuhan, China across the world: to Europe, other parts of Asia and also the United States as the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic.
Other athletic entities were soon shut down as well.
The NCAA Tournament was canceled and all collegiate spring sports were also wiped out. NASCAR and Major League Baseball were put on hold at least until mid-May and the Kentucky Derby, the world’s largest horse race, was delayed until September.
West Virginia’s high school girls’ basketball tournament was halted last Thursday, and the yet to be played boys’ tournament was put on hold. No practices are allowed to take place in West Virginia until at least April 10 and that’s even put the prep spring sports of baseball, softball, tennis and track in doubt.
Schools were closed across the nation, restaurants and bars were shut down, and in the age of “social distancing,” groups of no more than 10 people were outlined to try to flatten the outbreak’s curve here in the US.
The nation’s economy has ground to a halt and our lives have been changed.
That change came to a small group of southern West Virginia athletes, who were playing baseball at Alice Lloyd College, a small NAIA school nestled in the eastern Kentucky mountain hamlet of Pippa Passes, population 533, in Knott County.
That’s when the season came to an abrupt end for a quintet of baseball players — Noah Dingess of Chapmanville, Tjay Mullins, Peyton Branham and Isaiah Beckett of Logan and Peyton Brown of Scott High School in Boone County.
Alice Lloyd had just played a series early March games in Vero Beach, Florida, the former winter home of the Los Angeles Dodgers and on the return trip back played a pair of games on March 10 in the Smokies Classic in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, falling 9-1 to Union (Ky.) and 7-1 to Johnson University, dropping the team to 6-4 on the season.
Things were looking up for the Eagles, however.
And with a whole season to come, Alice Lloyd had a lot to look forward to.
But as the Eagles came home, events started to spiral out of control very fast.
The NCAA had canceled its spring sports season and the NAIA, which Alice Lloyd is a member of, followed suit.
The season was over.
“It is very crazy with everything that’s going on. I never thought in a million years I’d see this happen,” said Branham, a Logan High School graduate, and a freshman pitcher for the Eagles. “We were having a pretty good start to our season but I understand all of the provisions that are being done, and I agree with all them. I think our safety and getting back to playing eventually is our number one priority.”
Alice Lloyd baseball coach Scott Cornett said it was a shock to see everything shut down but given the seriousness of the COVID-19 threat, said everything is justified.
“It’s been a whirlwind for all of us. It’s been crazy,” Cornett said. “It’s been a shock to be honest with you. Everything has gone to a sudden stop. We’ve been playing and we were in a groove and everything hit a wall. Everything stopped. We knew that the virus was a serious thing but it was still a shock to see everything come to a sudden stop. I feel really bad for our players and for our kids. We feel helpless. What can you do? There’s not much you can do about it.”
Mullins, a freshman infielder/pitcher from Logan, said he hated to see the season end this way, but like Coach Cornett, knows the gravity of the situation.
“It was awful timing as we were all starting to get games under our belt and we’re starting to hit a groove and play well,” Mullins said. “We saw how easily it could be taken away and that’s going to make us work hard in the off-season. The cancellation of the season is crushing as I had been starting at shortstop and had been playing very well.”
Dingess, a sophomore, had been starting for Alice Lloyd in the outfield.
As a prep player for Chapmanville Regional, he had been a two-time Class AA First-Team All-State player, hitting better than .440 his last two years with the Tigers. Alongside his brother Jacob and many other talented players, he helped guide the Tigers to the 2015 Class AA state championship game in his freshman year, where CRHS lost 5-0 to Bridgeport in the finals at Charleston’s Appalachian Power Park, closing out a 30-6 campaign.
Dingess worked hard at Alice Lloyd, arriving at only 140 pounds but then bulking up and adding muscle to his current 195-pound frame.
“It really sucks that this season was shut down because we had a really talented team that was going to turn some heads,” Dingess said. “Things have to be done though to keep everyone safe in tough times. The game of baseball isn’t life but it’s a game that teaches you a lot about life from simple to complex things.”
Dingess’ mother Sharon and father Dwight, went to many of the Eagles’ games so far this season, sharing pictures on their Facebook pages. Ms. Dingess said this could have been a special season for the team.
“This year’s team was special at the Lloyd,” she said. “They loved each other and wanted to do well. Scott is a first-class coach. He truly has the kid’s best interest at heart, which includes more than baseball. He is also the men’s basketball coach and is coach of the year for this season. It’s a super small school but they are good for character building. They have professional dress Tuesday, meaning the students wear suits. Plus, they work two hours a day and that goes toward tuition. They also have to attend at least eight convos which are usually a positive church experience.”
Isaiah Beckett, a sophomore infielder, Logan High School graduate and resident of Peach Creek, said the season coming to a close was a big shock.
“It’s very disappointing and it took all of us by surprise. We just got back from spring break and we didn’t know that our last game of the season would be on spring break,” he said. “We started the break in Vero Beach, Florida, playing at the historic Dodgertown, then we went to Tennessee and played at the (Tennessee) Smokies Stadium.”
Brown, a freshman pitcher/infielder, played for Scott High School’s outstanding team from a year ago, helping lead the Skyhawks to sectional and regional championships and a berth in the Class AA state tournament.
The former Wildcat and Tiger players used to be his prep rivals but he said they all came together as one unit at Alice Lloyd.
“I am pretty bummed out that our season has been canceled,” Brown said. “We really had something special this year. I was very thankful to actually get to play as a freshman. I got a lot of starts and opportunities pitching early. Coach Cornett had a lot of confidence in not only me but every other West Virginia boy on the team. I am also thankful for getting to become best friends/teammates with boys who I was once rivals with in high school. I think the tough competition that we play in southern West Virginia helps prepare us to play early in college. With that being said it’s time to start working even harder for next season to come out stronger.”
EXTRA YEAR GRANTED: If there was one good thing that came out of this was the NCAA and the NAIA granting an extra year of eligibility for its players in an unprecedented move.
“You worry about our seniors and how to console them. Some of them may never get a chance to play college baseball again,” Cornett said. “But we did get some good news from the NCAA and the NAIA that they decided to grant and extra year of eligibility. That’s great and that’s very good news.”
Alice Lloyd has 10 seniors on its roster including Anthony Jarvis, an outfielder from Ripley.
“Some of them want to come back and some of them are trying make up their minds,” Cornett said. “One is going to med school and another has a job offer. This might have cost some of them their final year of playing college baseball.”
Dingess said he feels bad for the senior players who will have to make some tough choices.
“What’s disappointing is there are seniors and friends that are practically family to us leaving the team even though they’re keeping their eligibility,” he said. “They might get that year of eligibility back but what about the graduate schools they have applied for and jobs they have applied for in the close future? Those are things that can’t be postponed sometimes and it’s hard to see them go without going out exactly the way they worked so hard for.”
Branham echoed those sentiments.
“I hate it for all the seniors that worked very very hard this year and wanted to do big things this year,” he said. “It was very disappointing. When I found out our season was canceled I was pretty bummed, but to my understanding is that they are gonna give everyone an extra year. So next year I’ll be a freshman on the field still and the seniors this year will still be seniors. I was working very hard and I had some success on the mound. I finished with a 4.50 ERA.”
Beckett said those will be tough decisions for those seniors.
“I feel bad for the seniors because they have a tough decision to make, play another year or start their lives,” he said.
THE PIPELINE: Cornett said he’s well aware of the quality baseball that’s being played in the southern coal fields and hopes to keep that pipeline going in future years. Also on the ALC roster this year were Trevor Belcher, a Matewan native from Mingo Central, and Jacob Lovell of Beckley.
“They’ve done really well and they are all great kids,” Cornett said. “We have seemed to find a little niche there will those kids and we’ve got a little pipeline going there (from southern West Virginia). We’ve been recruiting a couple more there that we think we can land as well. We’ve had good success there and they fit in well. They have good talent and we think that they will all have good careers here. We look forward to coaching them and having them here with our program. They will all get another year back so we have to look at the bright side of this and hopefully we will improve even more.”
Cornett said the Logan and Boone players have fit it well with the Eagles.
“Noah’s been starting in the outfield for us,” he said. “Tjay has been playing a lot of shortstop for us. Peyton Branham and Peyton Brown have been two of our top starters. They have all done well and they are young freshmen and sophomores. We’ve got a really nice chance of building a nice ball club. These kids have had a big opportunity to make a huge impact right off the bat.”
The pipeline to Pippa Passes will continue in 2021 as Alice Lloyd had recently signed two more senior players from Logan County in Connor McGrew of Logan and Tyler McCormick of Man High School. Logan senior pitcher Dawson Beckett has also been heavily recruited by Alice Lloyd.
“We are also looking at Dawson Beckett really hard,” Cornett said. “He’s not committed yet but he’s really close. We also have Isaiah Beckett from there and he’s done really well and has improved a lot since he’s been here. He started out on the JV last year and he’s on the varsity this year. Those kids fit in here so well and they blend in so well with the other kids. There’s a lot of quality kids and quality talent from there. We’re going to keep working at it as hard as we can to get those kids.”
MOVING FORWARD: Many schools are going to on-line only until the COVID-19 outbreak is under control.
“We have meetings tomorrow (Wednesday) as far as what to do with the school. A lot of schools have already gone to on-line,” Cornett said. “I think that’s where we are headed as well. We just came back from a trip from Florida and everything was in limbo to what’s going to happen. We had thought if this had settled down that maybe they could come back to school and we could play some inter-squad scrimmages and had some practices as a group and get in some kind of baseball in but that’s not going to happen.”
Beckett said the players hope this crisis ends soon and are already looking ahead to the 2021 baseball season.
“All of us from Logan County are sophomores except Peyton, so there is plenty of time for us to grow and work in this long off season we have now,” he said. “I’ve played with those guys my entire life and it’s a great feeling to continue our careers together.”
Mullins said he’s already looking at summer baseball options and is eager to take to the diamond again soon.
“I’ll definitely been living in the cages, weight room, and field until next season. And I’m already looking for a summer team to play on,” he said.
Mullins said he loves to play the game and takes nothing for granted. That love for the game was seen his senior season with the Wildcats when he played through a hamstring injury.
“I had a similar feeling my senior year where I tore my hamstring and refused to stay out and played on it for about a month, before I had to set out for two weeks before playing sectionals,” he said.
The love of the game is something which separates baseball players from other athletes in other sports.
It’s also the smell of hot dogs and hamburgers cooking at the concession stand with the charcoal aroma spreading all across the field.
It’s the Major League’s Opening Day.
It’s the fans sitting in the stands on a warm spring sunshiny day with a cold drink in hand.
It’s a 9-year-old boy, wearing his mitt and taking in his first ever Reds’ game, sitting next to his grandfather behind the first base dugout.
It’s the sound of the ball off the bat after a sharply hit line drive.
It’s the green grass of spring as a new season begins.
It’s the zip of a fastball and the nastiness of a sharp breaking ball from a gangly kid from the southern West Virginia coal fields.
It’s our national pastime.
It’s our game.
And in these times, it will probably never been taken advantage of again.
Baseball got us through the pain of Great Depression, through two World Wars and the aftermath of 9-11.
There will be baseball again.
“That little saying is you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” Cornett said. “We’ve all heard that. We always talk to our seniors and how fast these things go by and how you’d better enjoy all of the moments. We talk to the younger guys and make speeches and tell them it will be over with before you know it. That definitely rings true. And now this. This is a really big eye opener for all of us. You just never know. That’s why you’ve got to enjoy every moment and do the best you can and try to make the most out of the opportunities that you have because who knows when it will be taken away.”