The coronavirus and its accompanying restrictions forced many athletes to change their summer plans, canceling competitions, camps and practices across the country.
Former West Valley standout Justin Van De Brake saw his first season at Washington State cut short in March, but that didn’t stop him from completing his pre-coronavirus plans to play a full slate with the Battle Creek (Mich.) Bombers in the Northwoods League. Several other local baseball players joined him in finding games this summer before returning to their college teams to prepare for the 2021 season.
“All things considered, I was just happy to be able to play at all,” Van De Brake said. “It’s just about getting at-bats. A lot of guys weren’t able to get any this summer, so just being able to get that many at-bats is huge going into the fall just as far as being comfortable.”
Van De Brake ended the summer with a team-high 119 at-bats, hitting .277 with six home runs, 17 RBI and 22 runs. The Cougars’ left fielder started in right for the Bombers before injuries forced a move to second base, where he occasionally played for the Anchorage Bucs in summer 2019.
Despite one teammate testing positive and mask protocols along with temperature tests every time players entered the stadium, Van De Brake said the summer still felt mostly normal. He stayed healthy while living with a host family and enjoyed the laid-back coaching style of 26-year-old manager Mike Ruppenthal.
Two other Division I players from the Yakima Valley, Vanderbilt’s Carter Young and Stanford’s Henry Gargus, also were left to adjust their summper plans.
Young initially planned to stay close to home and join the Yakima Valley Pippins, for whom Gargus played for in 2019. But when the West Coast League canceled its season in June, Young found a way to play about 25 games with Seattle’s Mercedes-Benz Baseball Club.
Gargus, meanwhile, became one of Arizona National’s top hitters in the Arizona Collegiate Wood Bat League.
The former Davis outfielder and first baseman who won Washington 4A player of the year honors in 2019 hit .383 in 47 at-bats with two home runs, 12 RBI and 14 runs. He’ll look to carry that momentum into the 2021 season at Stanford, where the Cardinal have started voluntary workouts this fall.
Young returned to Vanderbilt to build on a terrific start to his freshman season before it ended abruptly after 18 games. Washington’s 2019 Gatorade player of the year for Selah’s state championship team started every game at shortstop for the defending NCAA champs, hitting .328 with three doubles and 12 RBI while committing only two errors.
Vanderbilt’s tentatively scheduled to play its annual Black and Gold intrasquad series Oct. 16-19 to conclude fall training.
Van De Brake said Washington State’s already held some intrasquad scrimmages in Pullman, and the junior’s looking to solidify himself as the team’s leadoff hitter and starting left fielder. The Yakima Valley Sports Awards 2017 Male Athlete of the Year hit .333 with 10 runs and team-highs of 19 RBI and four stolen bases for the Cougars in 2020.
“I’m just real excited,” Van De Brake said. “We have a lot of talent for sure. It’s a noticeable difference compared to last year.”
He estimated about 20 WSU players found a team to join this summer, similar to the numbers Yakima Valley coach Kyle Krustangel saw for his expected 41-man roster heading into the 2021 season. Krustangel said 12 of YVC sophomores from last spring accepted Division I scholarships and he’s looking forward to the 2021 season.
Although his summer plans to take over as manager of the Pippins fell through, Krustangel still watched plenty of baseball both locally and in Montana, Idaho and Alaska. He continued to meet almost daily with his coaching staff as they focused on recruiting while players stayed in shape, even if they couldn’t go to YVC or weren’t playing games.
“The guys that didn’t took advantage of facilities and just fine tuned their skills as well,” Krustangel said. There were guys that want weight room stuff. There were guys that want infield work.”
He said he’s filled out 95% of the Pippins roster for the team expected to open its season on June 4, 2021, at Yakima County Stadium. Krustangel’s eager to see the new-look league and its three additional Canadian teams after three summers managing the Wenatchee AppleSox.
Of course, with many COVID-19 restrictions still in place, some uncertainty looms over the 2021 college season. Rosters will be expanded to allow for the extra season of eligibility the NCAA granted to all spring athletes, and at least for now, the schedule’s expected to look like a normal year.