By: Austin Siegel
K-State head baseball coach Pete Hughes can remember the last time the world stopped like this, because four days later, the world came to his baseball field.
“Virginia Tech, at that time, was the largest tragedy in the nation’s history,” Hughes said. “We were trying to bring a community back to normal and the score was completely insignificant.”
After 32 people were killed in a school shooting at Virginia Tech, still the worst in American history, Hughes managed the Hokies in the first sporting event of any kind on campus following the tragedy.
Facing the Miami Hurricanes in a conference game, Hughes remembers walking into a stadium filled with five times the Hokies’ typical attendance, including members of the national media.
“There’s nothing wrong with caring about college baseball, when it’s your world,” Hughes said. “I told my team, the fact that we’re out here playing, and nobody wants to play because we’re all devastated and heartbroken, but the fact that you guys are putting a uniform on and playing, we’ve already won.”
So, when Hughes talks about a K-State baseball season lost to COVID-19 in 2020, he does it with the perspective of a coach who’s managed games in the shadow of a national tragedy.
The Wildcats were coming off a 10-0 win over South Dakota State when the season was suspended and eventually canceled. Hughes said that as soon as the Ivy League became the first conference to end its season, he had a feeling K-State had played its last game.
“I think it had to happen,” he said. “It’s all about perspective here. We’re all going to do our duty as citizens of this country and do the right thing by it. Our sacrifice is not playing the baseball season. It’s an easy one.”
Despite only playing 17 games in 2020, K-State had given its skipper reason to believe the Wildcats could be in for a special season. After winning their home opener – the first game at the newly renovated Tointon Family Stadium – the Wildcats won seven of their final 10 games.
“It was the best pitching staff I’ve coached. When you’ve got that quality and that depth, it gives you a chance to play deep into June,” Hughes said. “It was an Omaha-caliber staff.”
Not to mention, the Wildcats were starting to heat up at the plate, with sophomore Dylan Phillips with a team-best five home runs and junior Zach Kokoska leading the team with 10 hits over the last five games before the season was called.
“We were waiting for a couple guys in our lineup to get going that have a pretty good sample size of success,” Hughes said. “They were going to hit, it was just a matter of time.”
Despite all that K-State had going its way in 2020, Hughes’ disappointment for his players is mixed with confidence that the Wildcats will be back.
“My message to our guys here is to stay in the right frame of mind. Seniors, don’t panic, there’s going to be a solution. Draft-year guys, don’t panic, there’s going to be a solution,” Hughes said. “There’s nothing productive about going into a feel-sorry-for-yourself, negative state of mind.”
No team in Manhattan has lost more games due to COVID-19 than K-State baseball, what Hughes calls “the payday” for all the work his team puts in during the offseason.
Much like K-State director of cross country and track and field Cliff Rovelto, Hughes is also responsible for the development of his team when they are not wearing a Wildcat uniform.
Instead of the Olympics, Hughes has to prepare his players for the MLB Draft and opportunities to play in the Cape Cod League and other summer showcases.
“Like the track guys, the only way to get good at our sport is high reps on a daily basis,” Hughes said. “If you’ve got the right players who are locked in and have goals, it’s all-consuming every day…That’s going to be our guys’ biggest challenge. Keep themselves busy, but defeat the commitment that they have built.”
With his players unable to use the facilities while measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are in effect, Hughes has gotten creative in finding ways to coach his team.
“You’ve got to be positive with these guys and you’ve got to talk perspective with them,” Hughes said. “Our guys get it. You’ve got to stay in contact with them and keep them fresh, keep them engaged so they stay in a really positive state of mind.”
While it hasn’t been easy for to go from what he calls 120 miles an hour to zero, Hughes has tried to keep his team focused on what matters.
Over a decade after managing a game at Virginia Tech where the score didn’t matter, Hughes is confident there are days ahead at K-State when baseball will be all that matters once again.
There was talk, Hughes said, before the season was canceled, that teams might be able to return in the spring even though there would be no College World Series in Omaha.
“Everybody in the locker room, they didn’t know what reason there would be to practice if we couldn’t go to Omaha,” Hughes said. “When I hear that, I know the culture is right where I want it. They never said that word around here last year. We’ve got our mindset where I want it.”
Source: Kansas State Sports