Virginia Tech club baseball wins first World Series, sport clubs persevere in pandemic
Like athletic teams around the world, the Virginia Tech club baseball team’s spring 2020 season was cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But these 28 Hokie athletes more than made up for it this year.
In historic fashion, the team won the National Club Baseball Association’s World Series in June, with a 6-0 win over Iowa State. Virginia Tech junior Braden Huebsch pitched a perfect game to lead the Hokies to its first-ever World Series title.
“To come out with a win was just an amazing feeling,” said Jonathan Spaulding '21, the team’s starting shortstop for the World Series and past president of the team. “We play for each other and that, in and of itself, is enough for us to have a competitive edge.”
The victory underscores the ways that Virginia Tech’s 29 sport clubs turned a challenging pandemic year into an opportunity.
After the coronavirus halted all practices and competitions for these teams in the spring of 2020, the approximately 1,164 sport club athletes returned to campus in the fall to practice under strict public health guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19. The teams were limited to practice only, no travel for competitions, and regular COVID-19 health check-ins and testing were required. They also had to find creative ways to practice with limited physical contact, based on guidelines that the NCAA and Virginia High School League established for varsity and high school athletics.
This involved emphasis during practices on conditioning and drill-based activities, said Julie Rhoads, assistant director for sport clubs with Virginia Tech Recreational Sports. The program also provided students with personal protective equipment.
“We were able to practice and sustain, once the program was in a routine, which was really amazing because you could see the students needed it,” Rhoads said. “They needed that outlet from online learning."
Still, the pandemic did not seem to dull students’ interest and enthusiasm for joining many of the sport club teams. Just after the start of the fall 2020 semester, at least 55 students tried out for club baseball, competing for only seven spots.
By the spring, all sport clubs were allowed to compete against other schools, but travel was limited to a four-hour radius from Blacksburg to eliminate the need to stay overnight. COVID-19 tests were required before and after travel for all athletes.
The baseball club had to seek out locations to meet rivals for games that were within this radius. And because most Virginia universities did not allow their sport clubs to compete during the spring, the baseball club joined a conference that included many North Carolina club teams, in order to compete.
Spaulding, who also worked as a sport clubs supervisor for the Virginia Tech program, was a driving force behind helping to make the season as competitive as possible for the baseball team.
Even with travel restrictions lifted, not all sport clubs were able to compete in the spring. Some opted only to continue with practices, while others, like the fencing club, didn’t have a choice. Their conference did not field enough teams to compete, Rhoads said.
In particular, it helped that baseball is considered a low- to moderate-risk sport, COVID-19 wise, due to its limited physical contact and it being an outdoor sport, she said.
Even so, “for a large amount of that year, we didn’t think we could play at all,” said Skylar Petry, a pitcher for the baseball club. Petry played on the Virginia Tech varsity baseball team for one year before joining the club team.
A few Virginia Tech sport clubs, including the baseball and softball clubs, were able to make their seasons work and even have stand-out performances. In fact, the softball club finished third in the National Club Softball World Series in May in Columbus, Georgia.
For the baseball club, games were held most weekends and the team practiced several days a week at the former Blacksburg High School field.
As the season was winding down, the majority of the baseball club team received the COVID-19 vaccine.
The vaccine, plus baseball’s low- to moderate-risk level, set the stage for the team to travel to Pittsburg, Kansas, for the World Series, after winning regionals in Greenwood, South Carolina. The Hokies were one of eight teams to advance to the national championship.
The team lost its first game to Salisbury University, but eventually, it moved out of the losers’ bracket by defeating arch rival, East Carolina University, two times.
“That was a huge thing for us,” Spaulding said. “That’s why we played the way we played, and as well as we did. [The rivalry] kind of lights the fire under us.”
Petry pitched a no-hitter in the second game against the University of Iowa, the game that saved the team from elimination. It was only the second time Petry has pitched a no-hitter in his baseball career. His first time was as a high school player.
Petry said he celebrated his feat briefly and then quickly turned to preparing for the upcoming games. “I was like ‘that’s one game down,’” he said.
His no-hitter was one of five consecutive games that the Hokies had to win to ultimately take the championship.
As was evident with Huebsch’s perfect game and Petry’s no-hitter, pitching is one of the team’s strengths, Spaulding said.
The team’s other strength is the players' love of the game and the way that they support one another, he said. Some could have played for the varsity Virginia Tech team, but for various reasons, it didn’t work out for them.
Instead, through the club team, they can keep playing baseball.
“It’s kind of been a saving grace for me,” said Spaulding, a multimedia journalism major who was recruited to play for the Hokies varsity team, but an injury changed his plans. “I think it [sport club] is a great place to go if you are looking for that second chance.”
The team doesn’t have a head coach, but that doesn’t seem to matter. They are each other’s coaches, teammates, and friends.
“We play so well when we are having fun,” Spaulding said.
As the new school year approaches, the Virginia Tech Sport Club program is determining if there will be specific COVID-19 guidelines for teams to follow, Rhoads said. Teams already are creating their schedules, though, and practices are expected to resume in the fall.
“We want to be back in action, so from that standpoint, we are moving full steam ahead,” Rhoads said.
– Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone