Cole Downey

Caleb Turrentine / The Observer Elmore County’s Cole Downey will return as a middle infielder for the Panthers.

Almost every coach has uttered the words, “Play today’s game like it’s your last.”

Well, the spring sports athletes in 2020 had to learn those words couldn’t be truer. By no fault of their own, they saw their seasons abruptly come to an end when the coronavirus pandemic hit Alabama. With the shutdown of schools came the effective end of the AHSAA season.

Those athletes learned tomorrow isn’t a guarantee.

Now, they’re using that as even more motivation to be better for next year as they’ve finally resumed play with summer workouts. 

“Unfortunately, our seniors, they didn’t get anything out of it,” Elmore County baseball coach Michael Byrd said. “That’s the hard part is they don’t have anything to come back to. But there’s a lot of motivation for the younger guys. It’s a little easier too because there’s already a little excitement and anxiety about us moving from (Class) 4A to 5A. 

“There’s already that little bit of, ‘Hey, we gotta show everybody we belong in 5A.’ Now, not getting to finish the season just adds to that.” 

When the AHSAA allowed teams to begin workouts June 1, there was certainly excitement for players. With so many guidelines and precautions in place to help slow the spread of COVID-19, there’s only but so much coaches can do with their teams. But after what happened this season, the players are just glad to be back.

“The biggest thing is they are just happy to see their teammates and be able to get together that way,” Wetumpka baseball coach Michael Dismukes said. “They were excited about the baseball part of it of course, but at the end of the day, they were ready to see each other and go to work with each other. That was the biggest thing for our guys.”

Wetumpka’s baseball team is working out four days a week for two hours a day and the biggest focus is just skill development. Because so many of the Indians play summer ball, it hasn’t been as hard for Dismukes to ensure the guys are in good shape because they had already been getting ready for their travel seasons. Wetumpka also hosted virtual workouts three days a week during the break, so Dismukes was quite pleased with the shape his players returned in.

Luckily, baseball lends itself well to being spread out, especially when on the field, and Elmore County especially has taken advantage of that. The Panthers were really starting to hit their stride when the shutdown came, but the good news is they are returning a vast majority of their players.

Rather than skill work and conditioning, Byrd has decided to focus on in-game situations with intrasquad scrimmages.

“We were just hitting off pitching machines for the first couple weeks,” Byrd said. “I didn’t want to do anything that would put anybody’s arms in situations where they wouldn’t be ready for it. But the next couple weeks, we’ll start doing live pitching. It’s just a good way to let them play. I can move them around in different situations. There’s not a lot of pressure and we’re not worried about winning or losing games.”

Especially with the lack of summer competition, those intrasquad scrimmages seemed to be a good fit to still put guys in situations they’d actually be in during games.

With no playdates, Wetumpka had to strategize how best to use its time because the Indians put a lot of emphasis on summer competition with about 18 games played in June.

“The biggest deal was figuring out what we needed to do in the weight room,” Byrd said. That’s the biggest planning that we had to come up with with no competition during the summer. But with that long of a break, we just basically started back with an in-season program because most of them are playing anyway.”

Now coaches are trying to find that balance of making sure the guys use last year as a motivation without letting the disappointment of last season control too much of their minds.

“We were having a really good season so we feel like we have some unfinished business,” Byrd said. “I’m hoping there will be a little more urgency once we get back in the weight room and it’ll all be a little more important because they know it’s not guaranteed. We always preach, ‘This may be it,’ but now they really know how quick the end can come.

“And it’s all still kind of day to day. It could be shut down again, and everybody has that little fear in the back of their minds. We just have to take advantage of the time when we have it.” 

Lizi Arbogast is the sports editor at Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.