Season three was supposed to be a good one for the Branched Oak Bucks. An experienced group of upperclassmen combined with a talented bunch of incoming freshmen had head coach Andrew Edwards excited about the possibilities.
The Bucks — a cooperative of baseball players from Malcolm and Raymond Central high schools — had plenty of struggles in their first two seasons playing Class B high school baseball. The hope was that they would surprise some folks in their third season. Now, that season seems unlikely.
When practice started on March 2, few could have imagined how rapidly COVID-19 would impact the high school sports world. Ten practices in, everything was put on hold. Originally, the Nebraska School Activities Association targeted early April as a possible return to action for spring sports. On March 25, that date got pushed back to May 1.
“I feel especially bad for our five seniors,” Edwards said. “They were very excited leading up to the start of the season. They’re disappointed. Feels like a waste of potential.”
One of those seniors is Rick Nickel. The utility player was anticipating a strong senior campaign.
“We were just getting to the point where things were falling into place,” Nickel said. “We have two tough seasons under our belt and we knew this year we’d be more experienced and we could make a run in the post season.”
After a solid spring and summer as freshman, Connor Zegar was eager to see what his team could do this spring. The sophomore catcher hurts for his senior teammates.
“They are all extremely disappointed,” Zegar said. “One of them texted me the other night saying how hard this is for him to have his final season taken from him.”
Much of the optimism for the season was the result of the work the players were putting in during the fall and winter. With the help of volunteer assistant coach Brandon Rieschick, many of the Bucks’ players were working out in small groups or doing one-on-one hitting drills.
“The number of players we had committing to these voluntary workouts was very encouraging,” Rieschick said. “Other places I’ve coached, we might get four or five players to do off-season work.
“We had over 20 players regularly showing up each week to go through hitting drills.”
Zegar was confident the work he and his teammates were putting in was going to make a difference.
“We worked out whenever we could find time, mostly on the weekends,” Zegar said. “Most of our guys were buying in and all the extra work was making us better.”
Rieschick saw the difference too.
“We do a lot of video analysis with the players,” Rieschick said. “From where they started in the fall to where they are now, the improvement in their swing mechanics is noticeable.
“Whenever we get to play ball again, we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”
While a spring season seems unlikely, the players are holding out hope they can still play ball this summer. The American Legion activities committee continues to monitor the COVID-19 situation nationwide. While they have recommended teams hold off on practices for now, no decision has been made on postponing the season.
“I’m hoping we can at least have a Legion season,” Nickel said. “We just want to play ball again.”