Guest Blog by Steve Appel, Athletic Director/Head Baseball Coach at University of the Southwest
USW’s 2020-21 school year will be remembered as a year of unusual challenges and innovations. In my lifetime I don’t think I have ever dealt with as much adversity and complexity. This said, it also will be a year that has made me a better person and this institution a stronger university. Below are my recollections.
In November USW Athletics faced the dismal prospect all team sports and competitions would be suspended for the year due to state mandated COVID restrictions. On the one hand the new rules probably meant students attending college in New Mexico would be safer than just about anywhere else. On the other hand, it was no longer practical to expect live sporting events to be held anywhere in the state at any level. It wasn’t until inspiration struck one evening sitting outside my home talking with my fiancé that I had any good ideas about what could be done. The result was an abundantly creative, safe, and financially viable plan that would keep me from having to disappoint all of our student-athletes who were so vested in playing their sports.
In all, seven sports were granted the opportunity to re-locate their bases of operations temporarily to Sky Ranch in Van (TX) and compete during the spring semester. Most teams were at the Ranch for about a month and Baseball six weeks. Although I had no idea what to expect, we all stepped out in faith to give it a try. Adaptation was the key. We all struggled to adjust to beds that we were not used to, players still had to get all their studies done remotely, coaches had to drive buses to competitions, and everyone had to be away from their loved ones and friends for an extended amount of time. However, there were some really great advantages. Teams were allowed to play their seasons, everyone was allowed enjoy all that the facility offered, there was plenty of good food, and everyone got to bond in a way that we could never have foreseen.
Baseball played every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. We were fortunate to be in a location where we were close to most of our opponents. There were no “OFF” days for coaches. Our routine consisted of practicing on mornings we did not play, driving three 15 passenger buses, organizing food three times a day, laundry, organizing study sessions, playing three times a week, and of course, keeping everyone together on the same schedule all of the time! In the end, we had one goal and that was to complete our season safely. It was not the only a goal we accomplished, but it was a goal we conquered. Not only did we play more games than anyone else in our region, we qualified for the 5th seed in our conference tournament and knocked off the best team in conference in the 1st round (who played in the NAIA World Series this past weekend). It was the 1st conference tournament victory for Baseball here at USW in the last 17 years.
In the 50 days spent on the road, I was able to witness not only a team that enjoyed being with each other, but a team that transformed into a close family! For most of the season, we had five freshmen who started in the field and two others who started as pitchers. I saw boys who had recently been in high school turn into great men. Our coaching staff grew closer than ever before and to be honest, we were probably in the best physical shape of our lives. The time at Sky Ranch allowed our students a variety of unique opportunities. As for me, I spent most mornings and afternoons running and working out while team members were able to zip line, play laser tag, and engage in various other activities throughout the week in addition to keeping up with their classes. The day before we left we were treated to the Sky Ranch water slides.
Despite the fun times together, this was one of the most stressful periods of my life. When we were finally eliminated from the post season tournament, I broke down in front of my team. In all my years coaching, I have never been so proud of a team and a group of coaches. Looking back now I believe we had a very successful year within Athletics. I am very proud of all our student-athletes and coaches at USW. We all made huge sacrifices in order to adapt to our situation and the plan worked! Even though we were extremely happy to be back home with our classmates and close friends, I would absolutely do this again if necessary!
In the end, USW remains committed to providing the best possible experience for student-athletes. We are here to help young people mature and grow into thoughtful and knowledgeable human beings. The times spent on the road this year will be something all of us will never forget and we will all eventually take everything we learned and put it to great use in the future. I can’t wait to see how all that we learned from this very unusual year will translate into success in the next couple of years!