After losing their senior seasons due to COVID-19, many high school baseball players in Oklahoma were left wondering if they’d ever get to play competitively again. In fact, many were forced to scramble this summer to find teams and even places to play.
For Mike Whitten and the Three Rivers Bandits, it meant sometimes practicing on a soccer field.
“We couldn’t find a field to practice on,” admitted Whitten, who’s in his seventh year with the Bandits and fourth as manager. “All the high schools were shut down, even the colleges. I called numerous high school coaches and college coaches.”
“We ended up opening our season practicing on a soccer field,” he added with a laugh. “We didn’t get a whole lot done. It was very unique.”
The Bandits are made up of players from 11 different Green Country high schools. They recently competed in and won the 61st Annual Glen Winget Memorial Tournament in Bartlesville. It was an uplifting experience for many who lost their senior seasons.
“Baseball is everything to me,” claimed Berryhill pitcher Colby Mitchell, who earned the win in the tournament’s title game. “We were all sad about having to leave baseball behind, especially our senior season. We thought we were going to go far. I would stay up all night wondering if they were going to cancel our season. That’s all I thought about. It kind of crushed me when they said we weren’t going to be able to play.”
Not being able to play the game they love made them appreciate the opportunity to compete even more.
“They’ve been very excited to play, especially early on,” said Whitten, who coached the Bandits to their first-ever American Legion state championship last summer. “I felt really bad for them. It’s a very unique situation for those guys to be put in, to lose their baseball season, their graduation, their prom, all those things they look forward to their whole lives.”
“The first day we came back for practice I was really excited,” said Berryhill outfielder Grant Yates. “Everybody was just getting back into it. It was a lot of fun.”
Not only did the Bandits miss the competition, but they also missed out on the bonding that every team experiences in and out of the dugout.
“Going out to eat after the games is one of my favorite things,” said Roberts, who will play baseball at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M this fall. “I missed just being around all the guys and just hanging out and working out together and stuff.”
“I’m so glad that we got to play summer ball at least, just for a few games even,” added Mitchell, who plans to play at Connors State. “I just wanted to play baseball. It’s a big part of my life.”
“They’ve been a great group to coach,” claimed Whitten. “They’ve had great attitudes. They’ve worked really, really hard for us. You can just tell. They’re excited that they get to play this summer instead of sitting at home.”
Experiencing a worldwide pandemic your senior season in high school has forced many to learn a tough lesson – nothing in life is guaranteed.
“Not just the game, but life in general,” said Yates, who will play at Labette Community College in Parsons, Kansas. “Something like that can be gone in a minute. I’m starting to appreciate life a lot more.”