BASEBALL PREVIEW: THE GREAT COMEBACK
BY BRANDON HURLEY
JEFFERSON - Nick Breon went to bed thinking he’d never get the chance to properly finish out his Greene County baseball career.
When he woke the next morning on May 20, three missed calls lit up his phone screen.
Something had happened.
As he phoned his father moments later, the shock and sheer joy quickly set in - it was time to play ball.
Greene County’s senior shortstop was utterly elated when he heard Governor Kim Reynolds approved the return of high school baseball and softball.
Practices began on June 1, with the summer’s first games set for Monday, June 15. Breon struggled to hold back his emotions once the Iowa High School Athletic Association approved a truncated baseball schedule the following day.
“I kind of stopped for a second,” Breon said. “I thought it was maybe a dream. But no, it wasn’t. I was so excited. I get to be back out on the field with some of my boys for one last time. It’s pretty fun.”
Breon, who led the Rams in batting last summer with an average of .395, is committed to Ellsworth Community College to play football and baseball next school year.
He tied for the team lead in total hits (32) while he tallied the most doubles with 11 and a team-best 18 RBI. He was skeptical that he’d ever take the high school field again. It all seemed so far away since the state shut down high school athletics back in March due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I was kind of bummed because I just want one last high school baseball season. It kind of sucks when I heard people say that,” Breon said. “But now we are going to play, so joke’s on them.”
Breon and his teammates plan to embrace the new sanitizing guidelines (i.e. extra hand-washing, no dugouts during practice, advanced health screenings and proper social distancing). As long as they are allowed to partake in summer’s national past time, they’ll go to great lengths.
“I don’t care what they do as long as we get to play baseball,” Breon said. “It doesn’t really matter to me as long as we’re out on the field under the lights.”
Greene County will be under new leadership this fall, as 2013 Ram graduate Matt Paulsen takes over for John Hupp, who departed after two years at the helm. Paulsen is the son of long-time Greene County assistant Kevin Paulsen, and has been in the Rams’ coaching system since 2015. He’s followed this current senior class since seventh grade, when Matt was coaching the middle school team. He’s excited to lead a group of athletes that have enjoyed a remarkable run of success over the last few years, and he’s hoping it continues deep into July. The senior class is experienced and ready to pounce, especially after upsetting ranked Gilbert in last summer’s district shocker. They’ve got a true knack for baseball, one that goes beyond pure talent, Paulsen said. Now’s their chance to cap a fantastically successful academic year.
“From a young age, this group of seniors has played a lot of baseball. I can remember even before they got to me at the junior high level they were playing a lot,” the 25-year old coach said. “A group that truly loves the game of baseball. They work so hard, whether it’s baseball or football or wrestling, whatever they’re involved in, this group just goes out and puts the work in. I think we’ve seen the result of that from the success they’ve had in other sports.”
Paulsen wants his athletes to focus on the game during the truncated 14-game schedule and not worry about the stresses of the novel Coronavirus. Baseball is already complicated enough. The coaching staff will make sure guidelines are followed and their kids remain safe. They’ll handle the fine details of sanitizing and how they’ll get to and from games.
“(The athletes’) job is going to be to play the game, we are going to keep it in their head that they are just playing baseball,” Paulsen said. “The other stuff, we’re trying to take it off their plates. That’s the coach’s role. Making sure they’re following all the guidelines that we have. That’s not a pressure they need to have. That responsibility is on us.”
The next month will bear witness to a season unlike any other. It’s Paulsen’s goal to make it as normal as he can. The Rams hope to return to basics, finding a way to enjoy the simplicity of America’s oldest sport.
“We are trying to get them to play with the passion they always have and enjoy the season and get a chance to be around their friends again,” Paulsen continued. “They’ve been out of school since the middle of March, so just embracing the opportunity to have fun with your friends and enjoy baseball season.”
Greene County, it seems, has evolved into a form of position-less baseball. Each athlete possessed the unique talent to perform wherever Paulsen decides to play them. Bryce Stalder joins Breon and others among a bevy of versatile athletes. As a freshman last summer, he recorded Greene County’s fourth-most RBI (12)
Senior Brent Riley routinely flexed his athletic prowess last summer as well. He turned into a remarkably solid No. 2 on the Rams’ pitching staff, securing a 3.94 ERA to go with 39 strikeouts in addition to tallying the fifth-most hits (21) and the second-most walks drawn (12).
“I think the versatility of everybody on the team (is our strength),” Paulsen said. “I can’t think of a single player that is just one position player. They’ve got the skills and the ability and the willingness to play multiple positions and help out the team wherever they can. I think it will pay off huge for us this season, especially with a limited schedule and not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. Willing to accept whatever role they’re given.”
Breon and his teammates are revved up for a season that was supposed to begin four weeks earlier, but no matter the length or when it begins, they won’t pass up the opportunity. Baseball is a chance to escape reality, for the time being. A diving stop coupled with a magnificent throw to first is what the sport is all about, Breon said. One final hurrah for the 2019-20 academic year, if you will.
“Honestly, I’m just ready to get dirty again. I’m ready to make some plays. That’s fun to me,” Breon said. “(We get) a few more times on the bus with a bunch of high schoolers. I’m going to make sure to have as much fun as I can.”
Greene County will open the 2020 season Monday, June 15 against Saydel in Des Moines. Their home-opener is set for two days later, June 17 when they host Jefferson at 7:30 p.m. in Jefferson. The Rams will play a 14-game schedule over the next month, facing off only against Heart of Iowa Conference foes. The 3A postseason is set to bring at its previously scheduled date, July 17.
2020 Greene County baseball schedule (All games start at 7:30 p.m. Home games are in bold)
Monday, June 15 - at Saydel (Des Moines)
Wednesday, June 17 - vs. South Hamilton
Friday, June 19 - at Gilbert
Monday, June 22 - at North Polk (Alleman)
Wednesday, June 24 - at PCM (Monroe)
Thursday, June 25 - at Roland-Story (Roland)
Monday, June 29 - vs. Nevada
Wednesday, July 1 - vs. Saydel
Thursday, July 2 - at South Hamilton (Jewell)
Friday, July 3 - vs. Gilbert
Monday, July 6 - vs. North Polk
Wednesday, July 8 - vs. PCM
Thursday, July 9 - vs. Roland-Story
Monday, July 13 - at Nevada