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'A burning desire': Duke baseball's road to Omaha gets put on hold for another year

Duke entered this past season coming off two consecutive super regional defeats, both in a do-or-die Game 3.
Duke entered this past season coming off two consecutive super regional defeats, both in a do-or-die Game 3.

Junior pitcher Bryce Jarvis reels in his catch of the day in Boca Raton, Fla. Several of his Duke teammates surround him on their fishing boat.

Sophomore shortstop Ethan Murray rolls the Monopoly dice in hopes of landing on Boardwalk in Crozet, Va. He prides himself on his ability to out-strategize his younger brother and parents.

Life seems perfect in both scenarios, but there is one glaring problem in each of them: it's spring. In spring, Jarvis and Murray are supposed to be in Durham playing games against ACC foes, only leaving Duke on business trips for weekend series. 

Spring is supposed to be the beginning of new life. Flowers blossom. Animals reemerge. Baseball starts.

Only this spring, Duke baseball’s season started and ended in a grand total of 26 days. Its 12-4 record is now meaningless, years of build up to this season now dissipated. Sobbing Blue Devils filled the room when head coach Chris Pollard broke the news to them that their elusive goal of making it to the College World Series would evade them once again.

“We received notification that all activities had been suspended,” Pollard said. “The next three or four hours were probably some of the strangest three or four hours of my lifetime.”

An abrupt ending

It was March 12 when Pollard learned of the NBA’s suspension, a date that he remembered with no hesitation. The Blue Devils were heading to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park for their midday practice to polish up before their highly-anticipated matchup with North Carolina. An ominous buzz filled the stadium as the players and coaches feared the looming decision.

A team captain glanced at his phone before leaving the locker room to see that athletics had been suspended by the university, and uncertainty erupted. Pollard had still not directly been given word from any athletic department officials of the suspension, so practice began. He cancelled practice after he was notified, but there was still confusion as to what this meant for college baseball.

Later in the day, Pollard gathered his team and explained an inexplicable situation: there was no longer going to be any NCAA championships for winter and spring sports. Every player needed to pack up and leave campus with the expectation that they would not return for the school year. 

The Road to Omaha was closed. 

According to Murray, the only way to describe the situation is strange. After wiping the tears caused by the team meeting, he sat at a Chick-fil-A table with two other teammates and tried to dissect what this decision meant for their baseball future. 

This Duke team was the product of years of work by the players and coaching staff. Every returner on the roster still had the sour flavor of at least one super regional loss stuck in their taste buds. Pollard added that Jarvis even “turned down a significant sum of money to come back to school” because he felt that he had “unfinished business.” The righty was drafted in the 37th round of last year's MLB Draft.

Murray stated that it was even harder to have the season cancelled because of the success the team already had, and how even then they still were not playing at their full potential. 

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you on the phone that if the season had played out we were going to Omaha,” Pollard said. “I do think we had a unique combination of experience, talent and also a hunger, a burning desire to get there. So I think this team could have been very good in the NCAA postseason.”

The Blue Devils were supposed to go to the College World Series for the first time since 1961, announcing to the nation that they were among the elite programs in the country. Or they were supposed to run out of gas on their way to Omaha, once again heading home after a bitter end to the year. Anything was supposed to happen except the season being whisked away without a fight. 

“You have that feeling [of melancholic goodbyes] every year when the season ends,” Jarvis said. “But it’s a little different because you’re going out the same way you have every other year, and this time it wasn’t really on our own terms which stung just a little bit more.”

‘Somebody is going to win quarantine’

As painful as the sting may have been, a unique opportunity has presented itself for every college baseball player in the country: an extended offseason for next year. 

“In athletics there is no substitute for being out there in your arena, working and training and competing,” Pollard said. “But as I’ve talked with other college coaches around the country, somebody is going to win quarantine...it’s incumbent upon us to really be creative and innovative with how we’re interacting and how we’re promoting training.”

Between its weekly team meetings via Zoom, positional breakouts and high profile guest speakers, the team is trying not to throw a pity party on what could have been. The trainers constructed specialized workouts for each player depending on the kind of access they have to facilities for baseball activities. 

Jarvis is quarantining in Florida along with teammates Michael Rothenberg, Thomas Girard, Joey Loperfido and Matt Mervis at Rothenberg’s parents’ house. The five Blue Devils took a page out of an old boxing movie for their approach to training. The day before the state of Florida shut down, they made an eight-hour round trip drive to find a used squat rack from Craigslist, knowing they would likely lose access to workout facilities in the near future. No fancy technology: just metal plates and high humidity in Rothenberg’s garage.

Though they’re focused on staying in shape right now, all five are eligible to leave Duke via this June’s MLB Draft or signing as an undrafted free agent. As a potential first-round pick, Jarvis appears to be the most likely to go pro.

“The draft is something I’ve been working toward for a long time,” Jarvis said when asked if he would be departing Durham next year. “And nothing’s completely set in stone, but it’s definitely my goal and my hope that things continue to work out the way people are saying that they will and that I’ll be able to continue playing at the next level.”

Pollard commented that Jarvis and Rothenberg will both likely be selected in the MLB’s shortened, five-round draft this year, but the future for the rest of the draft-eligible Blue Devils is more unclear. Whether or not they come back for another season of collegiate play is up in the air, as it heavily weighs upon how this unpredictable and unprecedented draft plays out and the number of undrafted free agency signings. 

Passing the time and looking ahead

Up in Virginia, Murray has a special dynamic in his home. His younger brother Noah is a 2023 Duke baseball commit, and the two have set up a workout regimen: wake up at 8 a.m. to get swings in and then lift weights as much as possible. 

“To win this quarantine I want to come out of it in the best shape of my life,” Murray said. “I think it is a very unique opportunity where I’m basically just stuck at home with nothing better to do than lift weights, run fast and hit the ball hard.”

Even though the training has continued, several Blue Devils are taking time to look at the silver lining of the situation. 

At the Rothenberg residence in Florida, the five of them know the future is murky and are cherishing the days they have left as a unit. Loperfido and Mervis have even flexed some of their non-baseball skills in quarantine. Loperfido defies the stereotype of college students only cooking cup-o-noodles, flashing some culinary talent. The 6-foot-4 frame of Mervis is not only helpful on the baseball diamond, but also allows him to be a menace in pool basketball.

Murray has realized how lucky he is to be able to spend extra time with his family, even if less than ideal circumstances caused it. He noted the importance of incorporating relaxing family time into his daily life to complement his workout program. Competing on the baseball field may have been put on pause, but Murray plays family board games like the rubber match of a rivalry series. 

Winning and losing between the lines for any sport may still be a long way away. But for athletes, you win and lose everyday with the decisions you make. It is very easy to slide out of a workout routine cooped up at home. Whatever teams shred workouts and are relentless in its preparation will have a massive leg up next season. 

There may not have been a College World Series winner this year. But spring will come again, and when it does, Duke is going to do its best to make sure we know who the champion of the 2020 season was. 

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