The basketball players aren’t the only ones at Oneida left to wonder “what might have been.”
Coronavirus fears, which have prompted the complete shutdown of all sports from youth leagues to the professional ranks, left the Oneida boys basketball team’s first state tournament berth in 22 years in limbo. And it interrupted what appeared to be a major resurgence by the Indians’ baseball team.
The Indians were off to a 4-0 start, all of them district wins, when the season was interrupted in its infancy by the urgent need to mitigate the growing coronavirus threat in the United States.
“Coronavirus has been a tough opponent to deal with,” head coach Chad McDowell said Sunday. “With all the unknowns surrounding it, what can we do? How will this affect us? Will we get to play? Will this run through our team?
“We have tried to be consistent with our approach to these answers,” he added. “There is very little that we can control when it comes to this situation.”
Few could’ve guessed when the regular season began with a sweep of district foe Wartburg in a double-header on March 9 that things would go as they have. By that time, coronavirus had made its appearance in the U.S., but it still wasn’t garnering a lot of attention.
It was on March 11, two days after that opening day sweep and one day before Oneida’s Lady Indians were to travel to Murfreesboro for their state basketball tournament appearance, that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, a global pandemic. At that point, the world changed. And it changed with dizzying speed.
In the days ahead, coaches knew there was a possibility that the season could be disrupted. But as they entered the weekend before a district double-header at Coalfield on March 16, there was still hope that it might not be.
That changed on Sunday, the day before that DH against the Yellow Jackets. That day, Oneida Special School District and Scott County Schools jointly announced that they were dismissing at 12:30 p.m. on Monday, and would not be back in session until March 27. The Indians would get to play Coalfield, but then all baseball activities would have to cease for two weeks. No games. No batting practice. Nothing.
By Monday morning, things looked even more grim. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee requested that all schools close until at least April 1.
Scheduled gamedays with McCreary Central, Cumberland Gap and Oliver Springs have all come and gone, with the diamond standing vacant. The Indians were to have faced the Bobcats in a Monday-Tuesday home-and-home in district play, and were to have traveled to Stearns for a rematch with McCreary Central on Thursday before hosting Fulton — a team they defeated in the preseason — on Saturday. Next week was a Monday-Tuesday home-and-home against Rockwood, maybe the team to beat in District 4-A.
Whether any of those games will be played remains to be seen. That March 31 end-date of the governor’s original request is fast-approaching, but the coronavirus spread doesn’t seem to have stalled. It seems unlikely that school will resume next week.
TSSAA said last week that it remains committed to student-athletes being able to finish the season, and for the Spring Fling to be played even if it has to happen after graduation.
But every time things are pushed back, that looks less likely. And TSSAA conceded last week that there will come a point where it no longer remains feasible to play the season.
If that’s the case, Oneida can only wonder: “What if?”
“Our kids, especially our seniors, have taken this situation hard,” McDowell said. “However, I am so proud of them for the way they have bought in to our message and they have helped that message permeate through the rest of our team.”
Those seniors — Jakob Hamilton, Landon Phillips, Aaron Bowling, Jager Patton and Trace Sexton — were taking charge in a season in which the Indians seemed poised to return to district frontrunner status. To put their four wins into perspective, the Indians won only six games all of last season.
This year felt different. Through two double-headers to start district play, this year was different.
Part of it was pitching. In fact, in his start against Coalfield on March 16, Hamilton pitched a complete-game no-hitter. Those aren’t too common in high school baseball.
If it turns out that the season can’t be played and that game was the last of Hamilton’s high school career, he ended it the right way. He struck out 13 batters and was just two walks away from a perfect game. Sixty-eight percent of the 79 pitches he threw were strikes.
In the second half of the DH, Blaine Shepherd — the only junior on the team — took the mound and threw a complete-game shutout, giving up just two hits and walking none.
Shepherd had already picked up a win against Wartburg a week earlier, striking out four and giving up only two hits in an 11-1 victory. Hamilton also picked up a win against the Bulldogs, striking out 10 and giving up only three hits.
The math isn’t hard: Two starts, 23 strikeouts for the senior, Hamilton.
But it wasn’t just pitching that had Oneida off to a hot start. The Indians’ bats were cranking, too. In the season-opener against Wartburg, Colten Daugherty had a pair of RBIs. In the second game against the Bulldogs, Trace Sexton had a pair of RBIs while also scoring two runs while going 2 of 3 at the plate. In the first game against Coalfield, Shepherd had two RBIs. In the second game against the Yellow Jackets, Landon Phillips batted in the Indians’ only run in a 1-0 victory.
Every game, someone different was stepping up.
“Our entire coaching staff has been so proud of the way our team has performed to start the year,” McDowell said. “That is not to say that we have played well all the time, but for the most part we have done a good job of playing the game the right way.
For McDowell, playing the game the right way is more than just strikes and home runs. Part of rebuilding the Oneida program has been about building a culture. His team has a word that you’ll see a lot if you’re around it very much: “DIG.” It’s on their uniform, and it’s more than just something to chant in the dugout. It has meaning: Dignity, Integrity and Grace. Those are the ways McDowell says the game should be played.
“That has become the building blocks to our program,” he said. “It spells out what we try to instill in our players and how they play the game. The kids have bought in and I truly believe they are having fun playing ball with their friends.”
McDowell said his players have made a point of lifting each other up in what he insists is a negative game by its very nature.
“Where else can you have success three out of 10 times and be considered good?” he asked. “This game seems to see you out when things aren’t going good. The ball will seem to find you when you just made the last out of a crucial inning at the plate, and as a player if you take that negativity of your last at-bat to the field, will you truly be focused on making the next play on defense? Probably not.”
That’s where attitude becomes important, and why McDowell and his staff have stressed it so much.
“You will hear our kids telling their teammate that just made an error to ‘flush it,'” he said. “Get rid of it. We believe you can’t do anything about the past except learn from it. Concentrate on the next pitch, the next swing, the next dead ball.”
That’s where coronavirus has become such a next opponent. It’s hard to concentrate on the next pitch when you don’t know when the next pitch will be. But this, too, is a lesson — if not in the game, it’s a lesson in life.
“As a staff, we have tried to educate our team to the best practices put forth by government and health professionals,” McDowell said. “Frequent hand-washing, social distancing, cleanliness, et cetera. But, more importantly, like in life, control what you can control.
“We have said control what is right in front of you,” he added. “We can’t worry about when we will go back to school. We can’t worry about who we will play. What we can control is our attitude, our effort, and our preparedness.”
If the season proves to be lost, it won’t be a waste. Oneida’s seniors — like the seniors at every other high school, and in every spring sport — won’t get a second chance. Unlike the NCAA, there are no additional years of eligibility to grant in high school sports. There’s only graduation — even if coronavirus persists and that doesn’t involve walking across a stage — and then the next phase of life. But the seniors have set a tone, McDowell said. They’ve showed their younger teammates how to play the game … and how to prepare for it.
“That’s with passion, enthusiasm and a dogged pursuit of greatness,” he said. “This pandemic that our community is facing is not something that these kids could have ever imagined but they have shown a great maturity to dealing with it.”
As uncertainty persists, there’s nothing McDowell, his staff and his team can do but wait. But if they get the chance to get back on the diamond this spring, he knows they’re going to do so with enthusiasm and passion.
“I have been asked by so many people, ‘How good is your team this year?'” McDowell said. “Knowing that we are only four games into this season and there is a lot of baseball still left to possibly be played, here is my answer: I don’t know how good we are yet, but I really like my pieces and I would sure love the opportunity to find out how good we can be.”