The Grayson College baseball roster is always stocked with talent. Just about every season, Division I coaches and Major League scouts take notice of hitters and pitchers looking to take the next step in their careers.
This season was looking to be no exception for the Vikings, who were ranked 11th in the country as conference play was just underway. Next season, however, will be the exception. The one after that too.
That's because the coronavirus pandemic forced the National Junior College Athletic Association to end all spring sports seasons where they stood, cancelling the rest of the games. There would be no return to the Region V Tournament for Grayson, no chance to take another crack at reaching the JUCO World Series.
But as part of the decision to cut short 2020, the NJCAA made a ruling which greatly affects the 2021 and 2022 seasons. Earlier this month, the governing body announced that athletes in spring sports — baseball, softball, beach volleyball, golf, lacrosse, men's DI and DIII tennis, women's DI tennis, and outdoor track and field — would not lose a year of eligibility for the 2020 season.
The decree will also affect the Lady Vikings softball program and both sets of rosters will take on an unexpected look for awhile. Rosters limits have been upped to 36 for 2021 and then will drop down to 30 for 2022 to accommodate the potential players who might stick around.
“We've all had medical hardships or kids come back. That's easy to deal with because it's just one person,” Grayson head softball coach Mike McBrayer said. “This is a whole different deal with an entire class. It's not something that ever happens.”
While players are still free to graduate or move up to the next level, whether that be in college or the pros, they could also return for another season. For eligibility purposes — a sophomore remained a sophomore. A freshman remained a freshman. And an incoming freshman is still a freshman, leading to what could end up being a logjam on a lot of rosters.
“I think we're all in the same boat — there's so much unknown out there,” Grayson head baseball coach Dusty Hart said. “The only thing I know to tell my sophomores is that they have a home at Grayson if they want it.”
At the junior college level, recruiting takes on a greater significance than at a four-year school. The roster spots can't be spread out among more classes and it's pretty easy to tell where you stand in the pecking order.
If you are an outfielder, for example, and the three starters are all sophomores, you know that's three spots in the lineup that are guaranteed to be open. It might make Program A look more attractive to a high school senior that Program B, where all three starters are freshmen and would be expected to start again.
But now the innings on the mound and the at-bats in the order which were going to be open due to all of the sophomores leaving might not be up for grabs anymore.
Exactly half of the baseball roster — 17 Vikings — consists of sophomores.
Already, a pair of Vikings have stated they want to return despite having signed with Division I programs. Infielder Wade Elliott was headed to Louisiana Tech and pitcher Will Duncan was going to New Mexico.
“They said they wanted to finish what they started,” Hart said. “There's so many dominoes that have to fall.”
One of those dominoes is the Major League Baseball Draft, which was pushed back from its normal time during the first week in June to sometime in July on a date that has not been set yet. It will only consist of five rounds this year, well below the normal 40 rounds it has been since 2012.
“(Catcher) Taylor Smith and Braden Carmichael on the mound have a chance to get drafted and need to wait and see on that,” Hart said. “The Draft is going to dictate almost everything.”
Smith is one expected to move on regardless as he signed with Texas A&M and will be joined there by outfielder Jordan Thompson, who committed to the Aggies earlier this month. Smith was hitting .351 with five homers and 28 RBI and Thompson was batting .435 with five homers and 21 RBI.
Carmichael was expected to head off to Oklahoma, which had three or four pitchers who could been drafted. But now there might not be as many opportunities for him — as well as Denison's Christian Ruebeck, who threw four innings as an OU freshman — than previously believed and it might make more sense to return to Grayson and pitch on a regular schedule.
“It might be the first day of school before we know who we have,” Hart said. “Normally it's the first day of August.”
The Vikings had also pretty much wrapped up their recruiting class for next season but there could be some shifting because of a roster crunch nobody saw coming six weeks ago, let along when players signed back in November.
“I wouldn't hold anybody back. If they felt things had changed and they didn't feel like coming here, I wouldn't have a problem signing the release,” Hart said.
In terms of the following recruiting cycle, Hart was looking to fill the holes that would be left by his current freshmen — holes that technically don't exist right now.
“We're doing what we can. We're pretty proactive anyway and work pretty hard to find players. But there's nothing to go watch and we can't host any visits so it's all being done on the phone,” Hart said. “The high school juniors, this is the biggest summer for them. I'm following along as good as I can. I think June and July could be a condensed summer ball schedule. Next year's going to be wild. The transfer portal around Christmas is going to be crazy.”
This was turning into a typical Grayson season. The Vikings opened by winning eight of their first nine games and were 16-3 and had just swept Ranger College by a combined 33-5 margin to open North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference action play when the season was initially suspended through April 3 and then cancelled on March 16.
“Not that we don't feel like we can compete every year, I felt like we had a pretty special group. It really was a pretty bitter pill to swallow, a punch to the stomach,” Hart said. “We definitely had a good club. They played for each other. It was fun to watch them out there.”
The Lady Vikings had almost half of the roster — nine out of 20 players — as sophomores and a couple have already expressed an interested in returning. McBrayer said four or five are still undecided on their futures.
“There's a whole lot up in the air. There's a lot of head-scratching,” McBrayer said. “It's still too early to tell. There's a lot of emotions because it has just happened. I think there will be some decisions that need to be made.
“They could come back and not win their position. There's going to be some competition where they'd have to win it. They're completely aware of the talent coming in and what's coming back as well.”
There isn't an expectation to add to the incoming freshman class, one that was expected to immediately contribute across the lineup.
“We'd already locked in our recruiting class,” McBrayer said. “We're seeing some fallout. There are some names popping up but I don't know if we'd have room.”
But if the select team schedules get cancelled, that will hurt the effort to unearth some talent.
“That's where 90 percent of our recruiting is done,” McBrayer said. “We rely on that summer time to do our recruiting. We're probably going to be looking more at high school sophomores this year because we'll have so many freshmen.”
The Lady Vikings were 13-11 overall and 4-4 in the conference standings as they were chasing a third straight berth in the Region V Tournament when the season was stopped.
“These girls didn't have any kind of ending point,” McBrayer said. “One day I told them to go home for a couple days toward the end of Spring Break and then they didn't come back except to get their stuff.”