Georgia Highlands baseball coach Dash O’Neill was keeping close tabs on COVID-19 as soon as cases began being reported in the United States. The Chargers skipper has a young son who spent a month in ICU five years ago, so O’Neill tries to keep himself informed about any diseases his child could possibly contract.
It’s one reason why O’Neill, probably more than most spring sport coaches across the country, wasn’t surprised by the eventual cancelation of his team’s season earlier this week.
“It was probably the week before they actually postponed that I was starting to get concerned,” O’Neill said. “I was sort of hearing through the grapevine that there were some schools up north that were thinking about not traveling. At this point, there was maybe only a case or two in the United States of this coronavirus. But I kind of had an inkling it could get bad.
“I have a special needs child, so I’m always very in tune with what illnesses are traveling around.”
O’Neill’s GHC softball counterpart, Savannah Sloan likewise could see the writing on the wall in the days leading up to last week’s postponement. Initially, the Georgia Collegiate Athletic Association made the decision to suspend play in its league before the NJCAA announced it would be canceling all spring sports across its member institutions.
“We kind of saw it coming,” Sloan said. “There were a lot of different cancelations being made at larger schools and universities before it made it to the junior college level. Every day, I would get emails that come across and any time they said ‘COVID-19,’ I was holding my breath.”
Eventually, the news came down that the season would be put on hold. GHC actually wound up participating in the final GCAA softball game of the year on March 12 in Alabama. The Chargers took the field against Wallace State-Hanceville not long after the GCAA announced events would be postponed, beginning the next day.
Prior to first pitch, Sloan didn’t tell her players the game would be their last for the foreseeable future. Instead, she went with the approach she used throughout the process: control what you can.
“What I didn’t want was my girls to be worried about that, to be looking for that and basically expecting it, because then they don’t focus on the task at hand,” Sloan said of trying to avoid the distraction. “We can’t control what’s going to happen. We can only control what’s happening in the moment and how we react to it.”
That same evening back in Bartow County, O’Neill had a feeling that his team’s dream season was coming to an unfathomably premature ending as they practiced at LakePoint.
“I felt like that was going to be the last time we were on the field,” he said. “We intrasquaded, and I kind of let the players do what they wanted to do. Just let them have fun. Afterwards, I brought them together and said, ‘This is probably the last time we’re going to step foot on this field together.’ … I told them I loved them, that I was proud of them, that I felt they were special and I thought big things were coming our way this year.
“I told them that, in the grand scheme of things, the country and people in general should be looking at taking care of the folks out there at risk — my son, my parents and my wife’s parents being in that category. This was just something that needed to happen, and that we would just deal with everything one step at a time as it came. I don’t have a speech prepared for when they cancel your season.”
The good byes would have been difficult regardless of how the season had been going, but considering the Chargers were on pace for a truly historic year, it made things that much tougher. GHC finished with a 21-4 record and ended on an eight-game winning run. The team was even receiving votes in the NJCAA poll.
Even still, the idea of what could have been isn’t what made the ending truly painful.
“I have no doubt we would have continued to rise in the polls, because we had easily the best team Georgia Highlands has ever fielded,” O’Neill said. “I think what makes it harder for the players isn’t just that we were good, it’s that we were really a close team. Our chemistry was off the charts this year, and these guys love each other. … I think that’s the hardest part. This is a brotherhood, and they are looking around, thinking this is the last time they’re going to be together. I don’t think they were quite ready for that.”
Meanwhile, the GHC softball program wound up dropping what became its season finale. However, the Chargers had entered the contest on a seven-game winning streak. After a slow start to the year in Sloan’s first season, GHC (12-11) had begun to figure things out with league play set to begin last weekend.
“This year has been a huge learning process for me, coming in when I did, not knowing these girls and having to earn their trust,” said Sloan, who took over the job in early December. “… A large portion of our roster were freshmen, and if we’re only losing two sophomores, then it’s going to be much the same team, with a few new faces we’ll bring in next year. … We’ll just come back out next year the same way we did this year, expecting the same things and with the same philosophy. Hopefully, we’ll look for a big season next year.”
Technically, the Chargers had five sophomores on the roster, but Sloan expects a few of those will take the NJCAA up on its offer to award spring sport athletes an extra year of eligibility. That decision certainly made the season’s bitter ending more palatable.
“Our girls took it as best they can,” Sloan said. “We have a couple who have committed to play elsewhere, but a couple of them are interested in staying and possibly playing another year. We’ll just go from there and see what the future holds.”
O’Neill also expects to have some of his sophomores back next season, although most of the 13-member class will have opportunities to move on to compete at a four-year school.
“We’ve got a couple of guys who are going to come back, and we’ve got some guys who are going to move on,” O’Neill said. “… Our guys have options. We’re in a good situation for this to happen, because we have a small recruiting class. We were not bringing in a ton of guys, so our numbers will be right around where they normally would be without having to tell anybody they don’t have a spot.”
In a lot of ways, O’Neill has already started thinking ahead to next season. But for the time being, his primary focus is keeping his family, including his players who are all back home, safe from the quickly spreading coronavirus.
“I think we’re going to get to the other side of it, it’s just a matter of when,” O’Neill said of the global pandemic. “There will be life on the other end of it, and there will be baseball on the other end of it.
“Hopefully people cooperate and stay in, so we can slow the spread of this thing.”