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After a promising season ended suddenly, IU baseball juniors still don’t want to miss a beat

Tommy Sommer sat in the locker room with his teammates listening to head coach Jeff Mercer speak in preparation for a series versus Memphis. Mercer addressed rumblings about the spring baseball season getting pushed back or possibly canceled, but Sommer never thought these rumors would come to fruition.

Tommy Sommer pitches in the Grand Park Summer League in Westfield, Indiana. (Matthew Holland/Indiana University Athletics)

Mercer had the attention of the room, but as associate head coach Justin Parker glared down at his phone, Mercer’s words were suddenly washed away. Parker received an alert on Twitter saying that the 2020 college baseball season had been canceled.

“You kind of felt the air get sucked out of the locker room,” Sommer said. “Everybody really just kind of fell into a little bit of a depression.”

At first Sommer was shocked, but as he surveyed the room, Sommer began to understand the impact it would have on his teammates. For the seniors who had big plans for their final season in the program, this was it. 

“That was really hard seeing those guys being so emotional,” Sommer said. “You understand how they have given four years to this program and getting that taken away is really tough.”

The Hoosiers were off to a 9-6 start with solid wins over No. 11 LSU, No. 17 East Carolina and a 17-2 slaughter of in-state rival Purdue. Although it was later announced that seniors will be granted an extra year of eligibility, a potentially special season came to a screeching halt. 

Indiana was coming off a 2019 Big Ten title, and though the Hoosiers lost their top three starting pitchers and two power hitters, Sommer and rising senior third baseman Cole Barr agree this year’s team could have reached greater heights than a season before. 

“We felt like at the beginning of the season that…we were just going to dominate the Big Ten like we did the year before and really put ourselves on a national stage to host a regional and be in a really good spot to go deep in the tournament,” Sommer said.

Sommer recognizes the key losses the team endured, but thinks this year’s squad was more close-knit than a year before. He was in line to be a weekend starter for Indiana and felt he and other players in his class were ready for a breakthrough season. At first it was tough for Sommer to deal with the reality of having his junior campaign canceled, but he has focused on a single phrase for motivation throughout his recent training. 

“Control what you can control” is often preached by Mercer throughout the Indiana dugout and has been at the forefront of Sommer’s mind during the quarantine period. This phrase has helped Sommer focus on personal development and working to improve each day. Because of this mindset, Sommer said his life in quarantine has been made up of the same things he would be doing if there were a spring season.

“The people that use this as a frustrating moment, or start to give up or feel dissatisfied with where they are at and take the semester off or the summer off are the people that you are going to continue to pass up on,” Sommer said. “I am just looking at this as an opportunity to keep working on my craft and get better and hopefully come out next year and even further step ahead than I was at this year.”

The one major change in Sommer’s mindset has been a shift away from focusing on the in-game aspect of baseball toward a focus on strength and conditioning, as well as speed and agility. Sommer also likes to watch film on MLB pitchers such as Cole Hamels and Gio Gonzalez because of areas of their games he hopes to improve upon.

Cole Barr stands in at the plate while playing in the Grand Park Summer League in Westfield, Indiana. (Matthew Holland/Indiana University Athletics)

For Barr, he gets hitting tips by watching videos of two of the greatest hitters of all time, Manny Ramirez and Barry Bonds. These videos help him gain insight into their mentality at the plate and allow him to try out new strategies at bat. 

Working out and hitting five to six times a week has filled Barr’s quarantine schedule, but he has also implemented a unique strategy to improve himself at the plate. Aside from normal batting practice, Barr has also been taking batting practice with a broomstick and a wiffle ball.

“My thought was that if I can hit these in the wind when it is doing all kinds of crazy stuff, then a baseball should be a lot easier,” Barr said.

Sommer and Barr have both been fortunate to have friends nearby who have converted their garages into weight rooms. This has allowed them to keep a similar workout regimen to what they would be doing at school. In addition, the baseball team’s athletic performance coach William Alli has been working closely with players to design workouts to keep them in top shape while away from campus. 

Alli said he communicates with players over the phone or on Zoom to answer questions and explain workouts. At the beginning of quarantine, Alli sent out a survey to all of the athletes he works with to get an idea of how many of them have equipment at home or not. This has helped him design multiple workouts depending on the availability of equipment for each athlete. 

Throughout his career as a strength coach, Alli has built a substantial library of exercise videos explaining movements that he has taught in the past. Alli said being able to send these videos out to serve as a refresher for people has helped a lot because he is unable to work with athletes in-person, which is a big change from his normal job.

Alli’s job as an athletic performance coach is based on his ability to work in a hands-on fashion with athletes, which has made the transition difficult at times. He points out the frequency of communication as the biggest hurdle over the past few months, but hasn’t let these changes affect his motivation to help athletes improve their bodies.

“My job isn’t just to teach people how to lift,” Alli said. “My job is to physically, and somewhat mentally, develop young men and women into better athletes and better people, so I don’t take that lightly. Everything has been pretty easy to say, ‘Hey, what can we do next?’”

Sommer and Barr have been hard at work during the quarantine period to stay in top shape thanks to the help of Alli, but now it is time to start playing baseball. While certain college baseball summer leagues like the Cape Cod League have been canceled, both Sommer and Barr will be able to put their skills to the test at the Grand Park League this summer. 

The Grand Park League began on June 14 and features 12 Hoosiers from the 2019 squad, as well as a few incoming freshmen and University of Houston transfer and Fishers, Indiana native Craig Yoho. As of June 15, Barr led the league in average home run distance at 402.78 feet. There are five teams competing in the Division I bracket and eight teams made up of players from NAIA, Division II and Division III schools competing against each other. 

“I think it will be pretty fun for us to be able to have something for us to do this summer and to be able to do that with a lot of guys you grew up playing with is pretty special, too,” Sommer said.

In the weeks leading up to the beginning of the Grand Park League, Sommer explains that coaches are wearing masks and players have been trying to be as safe as possible by social distancing to the best of their ability. At the end of the day, Sommer said in sports you will be in contact with people and there is not much you can do to prevent that.

“Obviously the last thing we would want to do is harm society and anybody else that we are going to be in contact with,” Sommer said. “We are still going to abide by any protocols as best as we can and we are confident that everybody at Grant Park is going to do that.”

In the short term, Sommer and Barr’s futures in baseball will consist of playing in the Grand Park League this summer and finishing up their college careers at Indiana in 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a certain level of doubt as to what lies ahead. 

While there have been many changes and questions regarding the future of sports due to the pandemic, one constant has remained. No Hoosiers were taken in the abbreviated five-round MLB Draft on June 10, but Elijah Dunham signed a rookie free agent deal with the New York Yankees on June 17, which means Indiana will have nearly its entire 2020 team back for another year, in addition to incoming freshmen and transfers. For Sommer, thinking about next year’s roster is exciting. 

In the months leading up to what will be a long-awaited 2021 college baseball season, Sommer said he will find motivation through players who he aspires to be. Whether it be recent first-round draft picks or peers he views as one tier ahead of him, Sommer said the people who are taking opportunities away from him are the ones who motivate him. 

“There are always people on your tail, but I am not looking backwards,” Sommer said. “I always want to be looking forward and always just trying to attack the next obstacle in front of me.”

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My name is Jack Ankony and I am a sophomore from Mount Prospect, Illinois. I am a huge Chicago sports fan who loves to write and talk about sports.

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