The St. Paul baseball team's 2020 season wasn't supposed to end like this, but then so much of the previous two months have not gone according to plan in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the day in which the Buckaroos were originally scheduled to finish their final games of the regular season, instead St. Paul's senior players earned a bit of closure on the season that never was.
Head Coach Dwayne Nowlin and Assistant Coach Tim Crawford invited the team's outgoing senior players and their families to join them on Bob Gooding Field on Friday to honor each player and give them one last opportunity to don a white and blue home jersey.
"This is my 26th year of high school sports from 6A to 1A schools, and this group of seniors is really good kids," Nowlin said. "When we started the season, we had a couple weeks of practice. These kids were so excited. At every practice from when we started they were 20 minutes early, getting ready, wanting to go, never wanting to leave — I was having to run them off the field. There's a lot of times you don't get that."
It was a bittersweet end to a season that opened with boundless hope. The Buckaroos were a senior-heavy team that was coming off its first state playoff victory in program history the year before. As the lone 1A school in their league, the Bucks stood out as a program on the rise, featuring an enthusiastic roster with enough athletes to field full varsity and JV teams — a rarity at this level of play.
"We were going to have 15 kids on varsity and probably 15-16 on JV," Nowlin said. "For a 1A school, where are you going to find that?"
The passion for the program will continue next year with likely another full roster of returning players, but for this year's outgoing senior class, there will be no replacing what they lost. Crawford's son, T.J., was among the 10 seniors whose high school athletic careers were cut short.
"I think it broke his heart, and I know it broke mine," Crawford said. "I've coached him since he was a T-baller. I just kind of got sucked into it. It made me learn the game and it's something that we enjoy together … we have some great memories."
As such, Nowlin and Crawford wanted to give some semblance of closure on the careers of the 10 seniors on this year's roster. Each of the players' families were invited to the field, where Crawford has spent much of the spring season keeping the facility groomed. The infield was cut out and freshly lined, the grass mowed and the numbers of each player were painted in front of the pitchers mound, with the St. Paul logo stenciled behind it.
Families lined the first base foul line in trucks and SUVs and took turns coming out one-by-one to get a photo on the mound via drone-mounted camera. From there, Nowlin invited each senior into the visiting dugout for a one-on-one closing discussion at opposite ends of the bench.
After taking over the program last year, the head coach felt it was the least that could be done for a community that has surprised him with how passionately it supports its school district and athletic programs.
"I'm just really happy to be a part of St. Paul and be able to coach out here," Nowlin said. "This is one of the best places I have ever coached. The community, the assistant coaches, the kids. It's just great out here."
2020 St. Paul Baseball Seniors
Alex Dela Cerda
Bill Gooding Field
Named after 1968 St. Paul High School graduate Bill Gooding, the Buckaroos' varsity baseball facility broke ground in 2017. A fervant supporter of the St. Paul baseball community, Gooding was instrumental in raising money for a new varsity field in 2016.
"He basically took it on, championed it and got the field built, so we named it after Bill," St. Paul baseball assistant coach Tim Crawford said.
Gooding had previously helped build fields in the St. Paul School District, beginning with t-ball and rookie-level fields for the St. Paul Youth Sports Organization. Gooding followed by raising money for three more fields for minor and AA levels, one for Babe Ruth players and another for minor through major levels. The latter two became St. Paul High School's varsity baseball and softball fields, respectively, before Gooding petitioned the school board for a new varsity baseball field in 2016.
Gooding was inducted into the St. Paul School District Hall of Fame on Sept. 13, 2019.
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