Hogan Windish wanted to finish the baseball season — a chance, as he put it, to remedy whatever bad habits affected his play.
The 21-year-old redshirt sophomore infielder at UNCG was devastated when the season was abruptly halted March 17 because of the coronavirus outbreak. Windish, a former Ashe County standout, started 17 games, driving in 11 runs with two home runs in 60 at-bats.
But he'll be among players across the region who are slowly finding some sense of normalcy again. The High Point-Thomasville HiToms, a wood-bat collegiate summer team within the Coastal Plain League, will begin its season Friday night. The first pitch follows Gov. Roy Cooper's announcement this week on an extension of Phase 2 guidelines in North Carolina, which included mandatory use of facemasks in public.
Sure, sunflower seeds will be scarce — peanuts, too. Count on a maximum of 12 players in the dugout and roughly twice that many bodies in the stands at Finch Field, the 2,000-seat historic stadium in Thomasville, this weekend for a three-game exhibition series beginning with the Catawba Valley Stars.
And it all finally became a possibility for Greg Suire, the HiToms' president, following reopening recommendations released by Cooper and Mandy Cohen, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services secretary, on May 22 listings baseball as a sport permitted to resume under limited guidelines.
Besides collegians, Cooper's order allowed a return to play for area high school standouts under the HiToms' N.C. 3 American Legion teams, an organization forged to take the place of an American Legion season nixed because of COVID-19.
For Windish, however, these few weeks of summer ball will have to provide the growth normally found during the college season.
"Usually you use summer ball as a way to maintain," Windish said. "You know, just to stay in that physical shape and baseball readiness for the fall season to come on for school. But this year, with everything that's happened, it's definitely going to be more of a development and really improve your game.
"Try to work back, where people were since we had so much time off from baseball. This year, it'd be just a little bit different in that way."
The HiToms are a welcomed alternative for Wake Forest pitcher Ryan Cusick, who planned to join the Cape Cod Baseball League — one of the premier summer organizations in the nation for top stars — for the second straight season before its cancellation in late April. The sophomore right-hander from Massachusetts, who was picked in the 40th round of the 2018 MLB Draft by the Cincinnati Reds, is among 11 players on the HiToms' roster initially set to join the 10-team league, according to Coach Mickey Williard. Cusick said he grew up attending games on the Cape.
"To have that stripped away in the spring is devastating. To have it stripped away for a second season in the summer would just be absurd," said Cusick, who struck out 43 batters in 22⅓ innings for Wake Forest. "It's really a saving grace to be able to step on the field again, and I just know it's almost like we're in Little League again — we're all excited to play.
"You know, it's like when you're in third grade and you get your first game up the next day. It's like you can't sleep at all. That's how it is for us because we haven't played in so long."
Practices began late last week for Cusick and his teammates, and that followed a host of precautionary guidelines. Suire said players were required to test negative for COVID-19 before arrival. Those guidelines include a daily Google document sent to players in the mornings — a questionnaire for symptom self-examination.
Six players at a time are allowed in the locker room, which now simply houses bats, gloves and clothes, using two entrances. Suire said spectator capacity of 25 does not include staff, scouts, trainers or players.
Suire said travel was significantly reduced as well, with the HiToms playing its Coastal Plain opponents on Thursdays through Sundays. Matchups on Mondays through Wednesdays are left for local and Charlotte-area collegiate summer league programs at home. Within the CPL's 12-team league, four have suspended operations — the Asheboro Copperheads, Holly Springs Salamanders, Florence (S.C.) Redwolves and Tri-City Chili Peppers (Va.).
Avery Cain, a former catcher at Ledford during the Panthers' run to an NCHSAA Class 2-A championship appearance in 2018, has found a bright spot after a tumultuous two years of a college career. He was "trying to figure everything out" entering as a catcher at Winston-Salem State. The baseball program, however, was disbanded after the 2019 season.
Then came his transfer to Division II King in Tennessee, where the pitcher had a 4-1 record before the season ended. But Cain, a 20-year-old sophomore, is looking at what's ahead in the summer league.
"Honestly, since I was a kid, I've been going to these HiToms games," said Cain, who played with the American Legion Post 87 HiToms. "I've always wanted to play in one, pitch in one — whatever.
"The role they've kind of given me is I'm going to be throwing on Saturdays. And Saturday's the July 4 game. … One of my goals, growing up as a kid, was to play in the Fourth of July game, so I'm going to be able to do that."