NORWALK — It was more than a year ago, one day before pitchers and catchers could begin training to be precise, when Norwalk High’s new head baseball coach Ryan Mitchell got the word: Connecticut’s spring sports season was being put on hold.
“It was like watching a movie for an hour and a half and then, when it’s all about to happen, the hero’s going to win or whatever, you turn it off and don’t finish it,” Mitchell said.
Steve Buckett, who was also in his first season as a head coach, was getting the Brien McMahon baseball team ready, when he received the news on the pause from athletic director John Cross.
“I didn’t believe him,” Buckett said. “Little did I know that it would cancel the whole season.”
The two coaches and their players have had to wait more than a year — Buckett was hired in November, 2019, and Mitchell in January, 2020 — but the Senators and Bears are finally back together and in action as pitchers and catchers began training for the 2021 season on Saturday.
“It was extreme excitement, enthusiasm and energy, and also a little bit of a sense of relief,” Mitchell said of the first day. “It was ‘Ok, we’re going to have a season this year. It’s going to go the way we want it to’.”
“When it comes to the kids and all student-athletes, they’ve just needed some positive light.”
The spring season will be much closer to normal than the abbreviated fall and winter campaigns have been. Teams can schedule a full slate of games, and the CIAC will hold postseason tournaments, following the conference playoffs at the end of the season.
The first full team practices are Saturday and opening day is April 10. McMahon will host Bridgeport Central at 10 a.m., and Norwalk will play at Westhill at 1 p.m. in their first games.
Some protocols will still be in place. Players should stay apart and wear masks in the dugout, but masks are not required out in the field except for catchers.
It’s been a long wait for many of the athletes, and Buckett said he gives the senior class a lot of credit for their dedication.
“They’re meeting each other for 6 a.m. runs on the track, they’re working out, they do cohorts at one of the batting cages in town, throw bullpens, hit together,” Buckett said. “This is a group of kids who grew up playing together and missing their junior season was just as difficult on them as it was on (last year’s) seniors.”
One of the biggest challenges is the loss of the flow from one season to the next.
Typically, a group of seniors would graduate with a group of juniors ready to step up to fill in the gaps. Now, teams need to replace two classes at once.
It’s a clean slate which creates a lot of opportunities for the players.
“We only have four kids who have ever been on a varsity lineup card before,” Buckett said. “That’s something a lot of these kids are excited about. “Not only is it their last time, for some it’s their first time playing varsity baseball. They really want to make the most of it.”
McMahon’s roster will include a few players with varsity experience, including seniors C Pete Meyerson, who will play at Lafayette next year, 3B/P Pierce Hingtgen and SS/P Kevin Pascual, along with junior OF Jose Vasquez, who started as a freshman two seasons ago.
“I’m going to look back on this year and wish that I had leaders and captains like I do this year,” Buckett said. “This is a hard-working gritty kind of group. I’ve got some big, strong kids who are like gym rats. They’re in the weight room for football, they want to lift double-time for baseball. The work ethic is impressive. I’m proud of them for that.”
Norwalk has a large group of seniors, but just two have varsity experience: IF Brendan Evardsen, and P Vance Ward, who Mitchell said was one of the Bears’ best pitchers as a sophomore. Those two, along with seniors Alistair Morin and Ethan Platt are team captains this spring.
“We’ve got potentially 13 seniors who are going to be on the varsity roster, which is a very high number, and just two of them have meaningful varsity experience,” Mitchell said. “The rest of the guys can do things, but they haven’t been out there yet. It’s definitely a clean slate, reboot or reset, because there’s not that flow and yearly turnover. And being a new head coach only adds to that kind of mentality.”
When the Bears finally step on the field for the first official game, Mitchell expects there to be some jitters.
“These guys put a lot of pressure on themselves to be prepared, so there’s going to be a lot of excitement and some jitters,” Mitchell said. “But we’re really going to just be happy to be out there. We have to enjoy every moment that we have out here because you never know when it’s going to get taken away or when something’s going to happen that you have no control over.”