The excitement in head baseball coach Evan Porter’s voice was evident during the Omaha Baseball media day last week.
Porter spoke about topics ranging from the logistics of bringing seniors back for an extra season to COVID testing protocols. As for the baseball itself, there is an itch to just get out and play.
“It’s been a long offseason and we’re looking forward to getting back on the field this week,” Porter said. “I think we’ve got a good mixture of experience and new talent with this team that should hopefully help us be competitive throughout this season.”
After winning the Summit League regular season title and tournament in 2019, the Mavericks followed it up with a strong 10-4 start in 2020 before the season came to a screeching halt. Their last game came on March 7, an 8-1 win at Creighton. After 11 months away from the diamond, Omaha will finally return to the field later this week at Oregon.
There’s one big focus for this season: Don’t be complacent.
”Since we finished on top of the league a couple years ago and then the season got shut down last year, we want to make sure we’re not getting complacent or expecting anything to be easy,” Porter said. “We just need to prepare ourselves to go and compete without any sense of complacency and I think the leaders are doing a good job of relaying that message to our guys.”
For those senior leaders, they plan on taking full advantage of the opportunity to play this season.
“I view playing baseball as something I’m lucky to be able to do and be able to keep doing,” said senior infielder Breyden Eckhout. “When COVID happened last year and our season got canceled, it was pretty devastating for a lot of us. The fact that we ended up getting this year back, I don’t think anybody is going to let this opportunity pass by without giving it everything we have.”
Eckhout spent the offseason working out and took the extra time to rehab his shoulder. However, getting to this point seems like a win in itself. It’s been a long and challenging offseason for everyone in collegiate athletics and baseball is no different.
Porter and his staff were faced with a monumental challenge in terms of logistics when the NCAA gave all baseball players an extra year of eligibility, ensuring no one lost a season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Porter said that once they received that information the staff immediately reached out to the seniors and told them they’d have a spot.
Along with Eckhout, shortstop Keil Krumwiede is another senior that got off to a strong start in 2020. Krumwiede hit .360 in the 14 games before the season was canceled. The two made up the left side of the infield for Omaha last season and will look to do so again in 2021.
“They’ve bought into our defensive routines that we do in practice and both of them are talented guys,” Porter said.
Porter’s emphasis on having players who are exceptional defenders, along with pitchers who can throw strikes, keeps them competitive in games more often than not.
On the pitching side of things, Omaha brings back two of their anchors in the rotation and a gem in the bullpen. Starters Richie Holetz and Spencer Koelewyn return and Jacob Mohler, who has taken on the role of closer, will look to build on his impressive start to last season. The homegrown product from Cedar Creek only allowed four batters to reach base in five appearances last year. Moehler held opposing batters to a mere .143 batting average.
All three pitchers have signed to play in Major League Baseball’s new Draft League after Omaha’s season concludes.
Although he’s excited about being back on the field, Porter said the logistics and the protocols around COVID have kept him awake at night more. In addition to worrying about how he’ll fill out a lineup card or manage a pitching staff, the head coach has to worry about players potentially being in quarantine and unable to play.
“I’m looking forward to a point where we can just start focusing on the baseball issues like past years, but I know that’s not our case right now so we just have to adapt and do the best we can,” Porter said. “I think as a baseball player and now a coach, you get used to ‘well if it’s raining, you’re not playing’, now there’s just another asset added into the mix with games being canceled or postponed because of COVID.”
COVID testing is a unique battle of its own, and each conference has its own protocols. In order to follow Pac-12 protocols, everyone on the team must be tested at least 48 hours before they depart for Oregon this weekend.
That will be the same for Omaha’s games at Missouri the following week. Kansas and Wichita State also require a PCR and an antigen test the week of those games. As for the Summit League, the conference requires 50 percent of the team to be tested each week.
Porter said they have gotten used to splitting the team up and going half at a time, ensuring everyone on the team is tested at least once every two weeks.
“This season will have its ups and downs like every season does, but there will be more different battles that we face as a team,” Porter said. “We have a good idea that there are going to be a lot of changes throughout our season and we just need to be ready for it.”
At the same time, Eckhout thinks the group will be able to handle everything well.
“I think that’s where our team is set up pretty well with the depth that we have,” he said. “I don’t feel like there’s a drop-off at any position on the field.”
Omaha will open brand-new Tal Anderson Field on March 5 against Creighton.