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How College Baseball Teams Are Finding Replacement Games After Covid-19 Cancellations

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At about 9:30 a.m. March 2, Wake Forest coach Tom Walter called Boston College coach Mike Gambino. It was Tuesday and BC was set to travel to Wake in two days to play an ACC series.

Walter’s call was to tell Gambino that some Demon Deacons had tested positive for Covid-19. They were waiting for another round of tests, but those early results, combined with the contact tracing that would follow, could put the weekend series in jeopardy. Walter wanted to give Gambino a heads up, to give him a chance to try to line up a backup plan if the Demon Deacons couldn’t play.

“Tommy was awesome all the way through,” Gambino said. “In a normal year, you can’t find a game for the weekend. In Covid, everybody is week to week. So, I started making calls.”

At about the same time, Xavier coach Billy O’Connor was telling Auburn coach Butch Thompson that the Musketeers were also dealing with positive tests. Thompson passed that on to the Tigers’ doctors and started his own search for a backup plan.

“I started looking for a ballclub to play,” Thompson said.

In the 2021 season, as college baseball plays through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, similar scenes play out across the country every week. In the first month of the season, more than three dozen series have been canceled due to Covid-19. When it happens, the team that has not been affected by the virus is left to scramble to try to fill a hole in its schedule.  

Sometimes, no replacement can be found. But in some cases, coaches have been able to make plans on the fly for new series. That’s what Auburn and BC did earlier this month when they came together for a thrilling weekend series following Covid-19 cancellations.

In ordinary circumstances, scheduling a new series for the coming weekend is extremely challenging and rare. A couple times a season, usually in the first couple weeks, a winter storm leaves some teams scrambling, unable to play either due to unsafe travel conditions or snow on the field. Even this season, amidst the Covid-19 cancellations, the storm that ripped through Texas and the Deep South ahead of Opening Weekend left many teams looking for alternative plans. Oklahoma rescheduled its Opening Weekend three times due to the poor weather.

Finding replacement games in such a scenario is complicated enough. But Covid-19 adds additional complexities. Testing regimens must line up, travel is not as simple, and most programs are this season working with a tighter budget.

But, even with all the obstacles, coaches and administrators are finding creative solutions and scheduling games on the fly.

For Auburn and BC, the process started with those Tuesday morning phone calls, given as a heads up that something was amiss. That advance notice gave Thompson and Gambino a chance to try to find a backup plan.

The next step for coaches is typically a massive email chain among the 303 Division I head coaches. Texas Christian’s Jim Schlossnagle and Texas Tech’s Tim Tadlock created it before the season when Tadlock was looking for mid-week games. It’s still going strong today, with coaches adding any newly created openings in their schedule as a way of getting the word out.

CollegeBaseballInsider.com hosts a service for teams with open dates on their schedule to look for games, but its more of a tool for the offseason. In-season schedule changes need to move quicker than a classified ad format allows. So, the email chain and some smaller, localized group texts or email chains were born.

In the early stages of their search, Gambino and Thompson both reached out to Elon coach Mike Kennedy. The Phoenix did not have an opponent scheduled for the coming weekend and were looking to play. But nearby UNC Greensboro was also looking for games after its own series was canceled, and Elon was in the process of finalizing a deal to play UNCG. Kennedy told Gambino he should call Thompson.

Gambino and Thompson have known each other since Gambino’s days as an area scout for the Detroit Tigers in the Deep South. That relationship was important to helping them create the matchup.

“I trusted Mike and he trusted me,” Thompson said. “I think that prior relationship played a big factor in us playing.”

But a prior relationship isn’t a prerequisite to organizing a series on the fly. Earlier this season, Sacramento State and Texas State were able to quickly match up for a replacement series even though coaches Reggie Christiansen and Steven Trout didn’t know each other.

The process of building that series helped form a bond between the two, however.

“I’ve continued to follow him,” Christiansen said. “He shot me a text after a win, I texted him after they beat TCU.”

Gambino and Thompson, however, were able to lean on their relationship to help build a series. They spoke Tuesday and by that evening—after only learning that morning their previously scheduled series were in jeopardy—they were moving to an agreement to play that weekend. Around 6 p.m. Gambino started looking at flights from Boston to Auburn. He said at the time it was 99% sure BC would be playing at Auburn that weekend.

Auburn’s doctors made the final call Tuesday night to cancel the Xavier series and at 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, Gambino got word that the Wake Forest series was canceled. Gambino told Thompson they were good to go and took it to their administrations to finalize the contract. Up until that time, they had been working on each other’s word, trusting their longstanding relationship.

After Wake Forest announced the series was canceled at 1 p.m., BC followed shortly thereafter with its own announcement it they would be playing Auburn. With the Eagles having just entered the Top 25 following a series win at Duke to open ACC play, it was an exciting addition to the schedule, especially for the players.

“They love the challenge,” Gambino said. “We want to play our ACC conference weekends. Once you lose that, to then replace it with an SEC team, a great team, a great coaching staff, a great ballpark and, not for nothing, they had fans there. It sounds so silly, but (the Eagles) knew there were going to be fans there. They were just really, really excited.”

Getting from Boston to Auburn, Ala., isn’t easy. But the Eagles were able to get a charter flight in part due to some luck about where the plane needed to be to fly BC’s men’s basketball team to the ACC Tournament, being able to get their money back in full for their originally scheduled flight to North Carolina because the cancellation had been due to Covid-19 and some quick fundraising.

While BC had to do the heavy lifting to make travel arrangements, Auburn was also able to help out by transferring the guarantee fee it was set to pay Xavier to BC. Thompson said he hopes to be able to reschedule Xavier in a future season.

“They worked a lot harder on their end,” Thompson said. “I appreciate them doing all the leg work coming down and playing.”

The teams also had to prepare completely new scouting reports on the fly. BC has a group of students who help with scouting reports and analytics and Gambino said they had just finished their work on Wake Forest when he told them on Tuesday that they might need a new report for Auburn. The next morning, the students started their analytic work, and the coaching staff was digging into video.

All that hard work culminated with a thrilling series on The Plains. BC won the first game, 8-2. Auburn on Saturday bounced back for a 16-1 victory to even the series. The Tigers held a commanding 9-1 lead going into the ninth Sunday, before the Eagles mounted a remarkable comeback to win,11-9, in 10 innings.

While it was a tough loss for the Tigers, the series—especially the finale—will go down as one of the most memorable this season. The series was born out of a desire by both coaches and teams to play any games they could following a lost season.

“My philosophy as a head coach is, ‘I just want to play,’ ” Gambino said. “Back before we had the new field, I was willing to move games around to find a place to play. That’s still our philosophy with Covid. Anytime our series, our game is canceled, I’ll do anything I can to have a replacement.”

You can find a similar sentiment around the country. That’s why the email thread among every Division I head coach remains active a month later. After losing the 2020 season, everyone just wants to play games this spring, even if that means throwing together a series on the fly.

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