High School Baseball: Manhattan vs Junction City

Manhattan freshman infielder Braden Dinkel (9) high fives junior infielder Tyce Hoover (7) after he scores during the first game against Junction City at Norvell Field on April 7, 2019. Neither player will be able to compete this season due to the KSHSAA cancellation of spring sports.

Don Hess began to prepare the Manhattan High baseball team for the pending spring sports closure nearly a week before it was announced.

Hess had been paying attention to the events happening throughout the country. He’d been in Ohio to watch his son coach collegiate baseball at Miami (Ohio) when the collegiate spring sports season was suspended. By the time he returned to Manhattan, the NBA had postponed its season and MLB spring training was called off.

The MHS baseball team held a practice for players who remained in town over the break. As practice wound down, Hess called his players into a meeting to prepare them for what he figured was coming next.

“We needed to prepare for the decision looming in the next few days,” Hess said. “Told them to hang in there and go as hard as we can until told otherwise.”

The meeting is something of a blessing for the MHS baseball team, as most teams didn’t have a chance to discuss the situation face to face before the widespread quarantine started. A few days after the meeting, Gov. Laura Kelly closed all schools to in-person classes.

That was the writing on the wall Hess needed.

“As long as it didn’t say canceled, we were holding out hope that we could get it going,” Hess said. “Once they decided to go online for schools for the rest of the year, I think most of us knew it was inevitable.”

Despite having prepared himself for the possibility of a full-scale cancellation, the March 18 announcement still felt crushing. In Hess’ case, the announcement came when one of his players texted to ask if it meant the season officially was over.

Soon enough, Hess saw an email from MHS athletics director Mike Marsh confirming the cancellation. Hess’ immediate thoughts went to his team’s seniors, who never had a chance to start their seasons.

“The opportunity to play your senior season is special, and I know the seniors we have were looking forward to playing their senior seasons,” Hess said. “To not be able to do that for them, and their parents, is really a significant loss.”

The lost season means the team won’t have a chance to see the growth that occurred from last season to this season. Hess had been looking forward to seeing how players like Tylar Pere, Braden Dinkel and Dayne Aschenbrenner, among others, had improved after an offseason spent training.

“Honestly, I thought the chemistry was good, the work habits were good, and just as importantly the skill was good,” Hess said. “The kids were working extremely hard even though we basically had them through tryouts and a few optional practices.”

With the practices now in the past, Hess finds himself wishing he could continue molding his team into the state title contender he believed it could have become.

“To have the season gone before it starts, we can’t even have a portion of it. That’s been the biggest disappointment,” Hess said. “This is what the players do. It’s what the coaches do. It’s who we are. To not have the opportunity to display that on the field and see other coaches and other players on a daily basis has been the thing that hurts the most.”

Instead, Hess will have to hope the team can replicate the chemistry again next season. There are many factors that will come into play, from how many of his players play on the same summer league teams to if their summer leagues actually happen at all.

“The growth would have to be individually,” Hess said. “You hope they take the time to continue to work and come back next spring a better player. But with the situation right now, we don’t know what’s possible throughout the summer or the impact it will have for player development.”