Since we’ve been doing “What If” week at Rock M, when I found out that the newest MIZ-ZOOM event Thursday evening was set up to be a diamond sports double-header, my immediate thought was, “Hey, I’ll do a ‘What if’ the season hadn’t been shortened” post. In hindsight, though, I realize that the diamond sports had already prepared for a shortened season (stupid NCAA), so COVID-19 may not have had too much impact on them after all, especially when you consider how they were playing and what’s to come next year.
Leading off the event was head baseball coach, Steve Bieser, and it’s surreal to think that Thursday would have been the start of a 3-game series against Texas A&M, where they would have been looking —so he hoped— to win the SEC. Lest you forget, when the sports shutdown happened, his Tigers were on a 7-game win streak and coming off big victories over ranked Oklahoma & Texas and had just walked off (and swept) Northern Illinois going into the opening weekend of SEC play.
When asked what made this team work, and how it will help next season, Bieser said that the team really loved to be around one another and how they gelled together was very special. Going into conference play, they understood their roles and had settled into them, and that’s what made them powerful during that stretch.
Bieser played a lot of different guys early on, and many were standing out (so much so that he didn’t focus on any one player in particular). So, while it would have been awesome to see how it all ended up this year, just think— they’ll all be back next year. Yep. With the extra year of eligibility granted, all 4 seniors are returning— Peter Zimmerman, Lukas Veinbergs, Art Joven, AND Spencer Juergens. How huge is that? Zimmerman, according to Bieser, could be one of the most feared hitters in the SEC, and Veinbergs, a middle reliever, could very well have been their MVP pitcher this season.
“Everybody is planning on coming back. (Like I said) it was just such a close group of guys that they’re excited to get a chance to come back and play as a unit and I’m excited to have them back. I knew we’d have some freshmen step up that would surprise us, and I knew we had veteran leadership on our team, but this was the year that we’d also see some of the second year players — those that were highly touted and big-time recruits — really show their potential.”
How does the MLB Draft fit into this picture? Well, it may not change things all that much, since Major League Baseball announced they’d be shortening the draft from 10 rounds to 5, and no one knows when it will actually take place. This leaves an opportunity for both Ian Bedell and Trey Dillard to return. Both players, Bieser said, are on the cusp of being selected. Bedell has done everything in Bieser’s mind to be a first rounder, but right now he’s in the top 100, which is 3rd-4th round territory, and that’s iffy. Not having a whole season didn’t help solidify Bedell’s status, and if he’d had it, Bieser was sure he’d be selected. Dillard is in a similar situation and falls in the top 200, so there is definite thought that both will return.
Well, who joins this already full roster? Let the competition begin! The Tigers have a large class made up of both transfers and freshmen that will push for spots immediately. Isaiah Greene (CF), is currently a top 50 prospect, so fans may not see him ever make it to campus, but Bieser has got some talented local guys from the St. Louis area (sealing those borders, y’all!) coming in as well as some great junior college players. The roster will be large and talented, and it’s going to be awesome to see how it all works out.
Batting clean-up for the evening was head softball coach Larissa Anderson, whose team was red-hot when the season was cut short. How did the success from 2020 set them up for 2021? Remember, they started out the season 9-0 with neutral site wins against some of the best teams in the nation. Coach Anderson’s thoughts?
“When you experience success and your players experience success, buy-in is so much easier. All your hard work pays off and you understand what it takes to be a successful team.”
Because they couldn’t go to the NCAAs, they had to find a different WHY. Something other than, “Win a Championship.” The team decided collectively to play for their fans. To play for their university. Instead of playing for that end result, they found a new purpose, and that, she said, is what she truly believed made this team very, very special. How special? According to Anderson, playing for an SEC title-special.
I mean, consider this. Two of the juniors, Cayla Kessinger and Brooke Wilmes, were part of the ONLY team to beat UCLA in 2019, a team that ended up winning the WCWS. And at the beginning of the season, the Tigers had 5 different pitchers get 5 wins the opening weekend, and 3 of them were freshmen. Because of the uniqueness of their situation and not having to worry about records and whatnot, the freshmen pitchers were free to make mistakes and work through some things while the upperclassmen were there to help bail them out and mentor them if need be. That’s an incredible thing for the future.
Who’s coming next season? While senior closer Eli Daniel decided to hang up her cleats and not pursue an additional year, Anderson has a HUGE class coming in, and a talented one. 7/9 of her newcomers earned All-Region honors in high school, and they are made up of local kids, and kids like Jenna Laird, a SS from New York that Coach Anderson has known for a decade. They are enthusiastic. They are fiery. They are talented. And they are hungry to win.
Both Coach Bieser and Coach Anderson spoke of having no regrets about their seasons ending early, despite wanting to see how much progress could have been made. As for next year, though, it’s back to the same goal. “I play for championships,” they said. “We’re going out to win a championship.”