Conference calls and video chats are the trappings of a different working world these days. It felt especially unusual for Raphael Cerrato and his staff on Tuesday, when they were supposed to be in the dugout at Bill Beck Field for a home game but were instead on a call sorting out summer ball assignments.
That’s been the new normal since March 13, when the NCAA canceled remaining winter sports championships due to the coronavirus and shuttered all spring sports, which had been underway for a few weeks. Cerrato’s URI baseball team was sitting at 8-5 and gearing up for its final series before conference play when word came in.
In the time since – a time that sure feels longer than two weeks – perspective has overtaken the initial disappointment, even as coaches and players embark on a strange spring and try to figure out what happens now.
“It was really hard at first,” Cerrato said this week. “But honestly, what we’ve gone through as a baseball team and all of college athletics, is kind of secondary to what’s going on in the whole world.”
On March 12, the Rams were en route to the University of Delaware for a four-game series. The sports world was already being impacted, with news of spectator limitations and the Ivy League’s decision to cancel its basketball tournament. URI’s bus would eventually turn around after a case of COVID-19 was reported on the Delaware campus and the school suspended its season. A series of decisions followed, first the suspension of the A-10 season, then the cancellation move by the NCAA.
“We were on our way to Delaware ready to play a four game series,” Cerrato said. “By the time we got back that night, the NCAA had canceled the season. It happened really quick and it was really, really hard the first few days, even the first week. But the last week, I’m hardly even thinking about it because of what’s going on with everybody – the virus, the financial implications, the economy. You feel a little selfish if you’re just complaining about our season.”
Even when looking at the big picture, the impact is real for coaches and players who make baseball a priority. And the Rams were off to a good start.
“It’s frustrating that it happened. We had a really good start to the season, we had a great group of kids, we were really excited, won four or five in a row. We felt great and then the season comes to an end. It’s been tough,” Cerrato said. “It was emotional. When it first happened, you immediately think about the seniors. At the time, we didn’t know if the NCAA was going to do anything.”
After the initial disappointment, thoughts turned to what happens next. The NCAA has said that spring sport seniors will have the opportunity to return for another season, but the logistics of that are still being worked through, both by the NCAA and by individual schools. Factors at play include scholarship limits and roster limits. For individual graduating seniors, there’s also the question of new academic plans and the cost of another year of school, if they’re not on scholarship. Most players in college baseball are not on full rides, with teams allowed 11.7 scholarships that can be divided and spread out among a maximum of 27 players. Per NCAA rules, any player on scholarship must receive at least a 25 percent award.
“We expect certainly some of the seniors to come back, but it’s tough,” Cerrato said. “It’s not like all our guys on full scholarships. They’re all graduating. They have to come up with different academic plans. They have to figure out if they can pay for a fifth year of school. There’s still a lot that’s up in the air.
“I’m trying to keep my guys up to date, and [Director of Athletics] Thorr Bjorn has done a great job keeping us up to date on things. But there are still a lot of questions on how it’s going to play out. The NCAA is going to have to do something on the rules with the roster limit, the number of guys you can have on scholarship. The school has to figure out how to pay for extra scholarship money because the NCAA certainly isn’t giving us the money for it. There are some issues we’re going to have to work through once we figure out what the NCAA is going to do.”
The final decisions will also impact recruiting, for next year and beyond. There may be some logjams on rosters around the country.
“We’re probably going to bring in maybe one or two less guys than we would have,” Cerrato said. “If it happens that everyone gets a redshirt year, if all our freshmen come back and all the kids redshirting and the incoming recruits, we’re going to have 19 freshmen next year. Half of those played this year. That greatly affects two or three years down the road. And some of the guys who come in next year will have to redshirt just because there won’t be any playing time for them. So we’re still trying to figure all that out.”
Summer ball is also a major topic right now. While the status of the season is up in the air, if summer ball can be played, it will be hugely important.
“The summer is even more important for guys to play,” Cerrato said. “We’re actually still trying to place some guys. We usually have a couple of guys we’re trying to place this late. It’s more than normal this year for some reason, and it’s becoming even harder because everybody wants to send their guys to summer ball.”
Amid all the juggling, the URI staff is also trying to use the available time as a positive, evaluating how things are done and looking for ways to improve. And they’re already looking ahead to next season.
“We’d love to make a run at this again,” Cerrato said. “If some of the guys come back, add a few impact freshmen and have everyone returning, we’re super optimistic. I’m already thinking about next season and how good we could be.”