Can this really be the end? As seasons suspended, some seniors’ careers hang in the balance

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Hunt head coach Jon Smith speaks to his team following the Warriors' 11-1 win in five innings against Bunn on Friday, March 13, 2020, at Fleming Stadium.
Jimmy Lewis | Times

Tyson Bass wasn’t hearing any of it.

His Hunt High varsity baseball team had just finished up an 11-1 win over Bunn in five innings Friday night at Fleming Stadium, mere hours before the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s suspension of play over the COVID-19 pandemic was to begin.

As one of four seniors on the Warriors roster, Bass was being summoned to a photo opportunity with classmates Slade Rand, Patrick Clark, Blake Daniels — just in case the 2020 season had seen its final out. Coincidentally, that final out in the book was a simple F-5 —  a pop-up to Bass at third base, who earned the win on the mound after starting and working the first three innings.

But now, it was photo time. Parental units demanded such. Just in case.

“Tyson Bass, you’re going to get over here and get in this picture!” his mother, Julia, called out.

Tyson wasn’t a fan of the idea that implied a certain finality. Reticence wasn’t a strong suit of his as he hesitantly evaluated the urgency and timbre in his mother’s voice.

“We’re going to play again, Mama,” he contended.

Perhaps. But those that wielded the power of cameras and smart phones on the same grass that once hosted Roger Maris, Harmon Killebrew and a rules compliant Ric Flair weren’t about to take that risk. This was their day that wasn’t supposed to come for at least two more months, that transitional moment where some of Hunt’s roster walks off an organized baseball field for the final time.

That timetable may have just moved up. Once the COVID-19 threat finally subsides, Bass will get a chance to play college baseball at NCAA Division III North Carolina Wesleyan — albeit without the aid of an athletic scholarship per NCAA rules. Daniels, an outfielder with an evolving bat and closing ability out of the bullpen, urgently needs the balance of the 2020 season to attract interest.

“This could be it,” Hunt head coach Jon Smith said. “You never know. We try to preach to them that it could be like that all the time — you never know when it could be taken away from you. And it was taken away from us.”

The NCHSAA has suspended all contests, practices and skill development sessions through at least Monday, April 6. The North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association has suspended games indefinitely but left practice and training sessions up to the discretion of individual schools.

Smith described the first team meeting after the announcement of the shutdown as “surreal.”

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and you can’t even put it into words,” he said. “Because you don’t know. We’re just in a holding pattern, from high school kids all the way down to Little League and colleges. I don’t even know what to say other than while we’re away, keep throwing and keep swinging. Maybe they’ll give us the go ahead. The most important thing, is that the virus is gone. That’s way more important than baseball, but still, baseball means a lot to these kids.”

While the NCAA has shut down its spring sports championships for 2020, the organization has already assured athletes that they will be given an extra year of eligibility. As a practical matter, high school players will not and cannot enjoy that luxury.

“I hate it,” Bunn head coach Patrick Warren said. “I get it. You can’t make a 19-year-old play high school baseball again. But it’s an unfortunate situation. Obviously, safety for the kids and the public are first.”

There’s safety. But will there be a signing day and potential tuition relief for some?

“I was hoping I could have the whole season to try to get looked at,” Daniels said. “I am upset that our season is pretty much canceled. No one thought this would happen. I’m happy we won the game, but in the end, I’m more upset than anything.”

Added Daniels: “If I could get out here one more time, two more times, however many more times, it would mean the world to me. My first reaction was, my mind just went blank, I didn’t know what to think. I was upset for a while, but coming out here — anytime I get out here, my mind just clears. Coming out here and playing this game, my mind was clear and I was ready to play.”

As Daniels spoke, a collection of kids played in the Fleming Stadium outfield. It would be the final activity, organized or otherwise, within those foul lines until at least April 13.

Baseball, still among the most sacred of American social institutions, has gone dark.