Back To School: Meet Three College Baseball Seniors Who Eagerly Returned To Campus
The NCAA’s unprecedented decision last March to cancel the College World Series and all other winter and spring sports championships due to the coronavirus pandemic cut short the seasons for athletes around the country.
That decision soon led to a question of whether spring sports athletes should receive an extra year of eligibility to account for what amounted to a lost season. Baseball teams had completed only about a quarter of their regular season, after all. In a normal year, a player who suffered a season-ending injury at the same point would be eligible for a medical redshirt, giving them that season of eligibility back.
After some debate, all three divisions of the NCAA, as well as the National Junior College Athletic Association and NAIA voted to grant eligibility relief to all spring sports athletes—effectively giving every baseball player on a college roster in 2020 an extra year of eligibility.
Those decisions meant that seniors, whose careers would have otherwise ended with last spring’s cancelations could return to college baseball in 2021. Those seniors didn’t have an easy choice to make, however. It was late March by the time all the collegiate bodies had ruled to offer the option for players to return. Some had jobs or graduate school lined up already. And in a partial-scholarship sport like baseball, finances were often an important consideration before signing up for another year of college.
In the end, many seniors did choose to return to school and extend their college careers. They’re back for a variety of different reasons. Some are looking to prove themselves to professional teams. Some are playing for championships. Some wanted to finish their degrees and are happy to keep playing while pursuing their academic goals.
No matter why they’re back in college baseball, this season represents another shot, a do-over of a year that went terribly wrong.
Here are a few of their stories.
Virginia closer Stephen Schoch
Stephen Schoch grew up admiring Brian O’Connor’s Virginia program, which was the biggest college baseball power near his home in Maryland. He still has a picture of himself as a 12-year-old in Cooperstown wearing a Virginia hat.
So when Schoch entered the transfer portal to look for a new school to play for after graduating from Maryland-Baltimore County in 2019 with one year of eligibility remaining and then-Virginia pitching coach Karl Kuhn was the first coach to contact him, Schoch was excited. After starting his college career at Appalachian State, then transferring to UMBC after one season following a coaching change, he was headed to his dream school.
“I got lucky with the whole situation, the way it turned out the way it did, and getting to live out the dream,” he said.
That’s what Schoch was doing early last season. He established himself as one of the Cavaliers’ best relievers and appeared in 11 of their first 17 games, piling up five saves and 24 strikeouts in 16.2 innings.
On March 11, Virginia hosted Massachusetts-Lowell in the second game of a midweek series. Schoch came on in the eighth inning and threw two scoreless innings to earn his first victory of the season.
The next day, the season came to a halt. Schoch was devastated.
“My first thought was to cry,” he said. “I’ve seen ‘A League of Their Own,’ and I know Tom Hanks tells me not to cry. But he spent his life acting and not playing college baseball, so I didn’t take his advice. I let the feelings out a little bit.”
Schoch was walking around Disharoon Park and still processing the news when he ran into O’Connor. He told Schoch there was a chance the NCAA would extend an extra year of eligibility to seniors and asked if Schoch would be interested in returning for another season.
“I couldn’t have said ‘yes’ fast enough,” Schoch said. “My dream was to play at Virginia, but I didn’t want to be a token guy. I wanted to be a contributor and to be the last team standing in Omaha. I told him when I committed here, my goal was to come here and help this team win in Omaha. So I wanted to make good on that promise.”
Schoch had begun a master’s degree in higher education with a concentration in athletic administration, which he said will be useful if he goes into coaching once his playing career ends. By staying at Virginia one more year, he will be able to finish the degree. He is working on his final three classes this spring.
Schoch spent the summer and fall working and saving money for this extra year. He worked a couple jobs, including one at a local insurance company, where he cold-called about 200 potential clients a day. He estimates he made about $10,000 but wasn’t sure because most of it went straight to bills.
“I really found out in this period how expensive life is,” he said. “I’m grateful to be back in a college baseball environment where I can get free oatmeal at the field.”
Schoch returns as one of the top relievers in the country and is part of the reason the Cavaliers entered the season ranked No. 5 and are the favorites in the Atlantic Coast Conference. After a challenging year, he’s excited for another opportunity to fulfill his college baseball dream.
Ball State catcher Chase Sebby
There were some warning signs on that fateful week last March that college sports would not be able to continue as scheduled. Travel restrictions forced Central Connecticut State’s series at Creighton to be canceled early in the week. Not long after, the Ivy League canceled its men’s basketball tournament and many schools planned to play games without fans in the stands.
But nothing prepared players for their seasons to be canceled.
“It sucked,” Ball State catcher Chase Sebby said. “We didn’t get to do what we wanted to do last year. We worked for however long, probably seven months. It was tough. You only get together as a team one time, the team is different every single year.”
Sebby was already in his fifth year of college last season. In 2015 he began his journey at St. John’s, where he was a true walk-on trying to make the team. He fell just short of making the 35-man roster but stayed with the team as a practice player. He hoped he’d have another opportunity the following year, but when St. John’s brought in more catching help in their recruiting class, he realized that chance wouldn’t come.
So Sebby, a California native, transferred to Cypress (Calif.) JC. After one season, he didn’t get any interest from recruiters and was preparing to transfer to UCLA, hoping to latch on as a bullpen catcher with the Bruins, before Cypress coach Scott Pickler recommended him to Ball State coach Rich Maloney. Sebby was soon headed to Muncie, Ind., sight unseen.
Sebby played his way into the Cardinals’ starting lineup and in 2019 was named the Mid-American Conference’s defensive player of the year. He hit .260/.367/.400 in the abbreviated 2020 season, while also beginning his master’s degree in statistics.
By returning for a sixth year, Sebby will finish his master’s. In addition to his course load and baseball, he’s also working as a graduate assistant, which allows him to make some money and pay for school. He could finish school, keep playing baseball and—because of his GA job—his return wouldn’t lead to anyone getting less scholarship money, which he said wouldn’t sit well with him.
Everything had fallen into place for another year at Ball State.
“If I stopped the master’s, I wouldn’t want to go back,” he said. “I feel like once you stop going to school, you’re going to like it so much, you’re not going to go back. I figured I’d keep playing until I’m not able to anymore.”
Sebby wants to eventually combine his playing experience with his degree to work in a front office.
“I know sports are going the analytics route, they’re going to be looking for people like me who know how to crunch numbers, find trends and manipulate data,” he said. “Baseball would be the main choice because I have the on-field experience to back up the numbers.”
But first, Sebby is hoping that his final season of college baseball can bring him his first championship.
“I’d like to win a ring,” Sebby said. “I haven’t won one yet. We’ve gotten pretty close a couple times but I’ve never actually won a ring, so that would be the main thing for me.”
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Kentucky righthander Zach Kammin
The decision to grant an extra year of eligibility had reverberations at all levels of college baseball, not just in Division I. The extra year enabled players in Division II and III to return to their teams or, for players who had graduated, to explore their options as a graduate transfer.
While NCAA rules typically require baseball players to sit out a year after a transfer, an exception is made for players after their graduation. Grad transfers have become more common in recent years and were a large part of this year’s transfer activity because of the extra eligibility given to seniors.
Righthander Zach Kammin had an excellent career at Coe (Iowa), a D-III school. After having Tommy John surgery early in his career, he went 12-1, 2.62 with 107 strikeouts in 99.2 innings over four seasons.
Once the 2020 season was canceled, he thought his college career was over. He was on track to graduate in the spring, and the company he was working for part-time as a software engineer was planning to hire him full-time after graduation. Unless he got a chance with a professional team—which he didn’t think was likely once the draft was reduced to five rounds—he expected to start his post-baseball life.
“I didn’t see the extra year as an option,” Kammin said. “I was done with school. I had a job. I was ready to sign or start real life.”
But then, like many Americans, Kammin was furloughed. Suddenly, with more time on his hands, he decided to take advantage of an opportunity to play in the summer wood bat Northwoods League for Rockford, near his hometown in Illinois. He hoped it would be an opportunity to get seen by scouts and lead to a free agent deal.
Kammin pitched well during the summer, going 2-1, 3.38 with 34 strikeouts in 24 innings. His success caught the attention of several college coaches, who contacted the Rockford coaching staff. They advised Kammin to officially enter the NCAA’s transfer portal, allowing teams to contact him directly, so that he could take stock of his options.
“I was pushing it off because I was like, ‘I don’t want to go back (to school). I have a degree, I’ve been there long enough,’ ” Kammin said. “I either wanted to play pro or go work. But talking with them, I realized I had the chance to play somewhere bigger. I finally decided to give it one more try.”
Kammin said coaches from across college baseball, from NAIA to major D-I conferences, contacted him. Because he hadn’t initially seen graduate school as an option, Kammin had a lot to sort through. He had to decide which programs he was interested in and what kind of academics he wanted. He decided to focus on schools that offered a graduate certificate, which can be completed in one year.
Eventually, Kammin’s process led him to Kentucky. A few of his teammates at Rockford were Wildcats, and they helped talk him up to the coaching staff. Kammin settled on a graduate certificate in sports management, which he hopes when blended with his degree in computer science, will help him work in the sports technology field.
On the field, Kammin is making a big jump from D-III to the Southeastern Conference, the best college baseball league in the country. He said he learned in his first scrimmage at Kentucky that he would need to make adjustments to continue to have success, but he now projects to be a member of the Wildcats’ rotation this spring.
Adjusting on the field and off hasn’t been easy for Kammin. After five years at Coe, he knew exactly what was expected of him. He had to learn new rhythms at Kentucky and meet new teammates, all while playing in a pandemic where normal team-building activities are not possible.
But after a whirlwind year, Kammin is grateful to have the opportunity.
“Even though this virus is not good at all, it kind of turned out on a positive note for me,” Kammin said. “I was sitting at home in quarantine, not working, waiting for the draft, expecting nothing, ready for it to be the end. I’m happy it’s not.” n