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SJ Baseball Seniors pose in front of their home dugout.
On March 13th, 2020, The UIL, the governing body for hundreds of school-sponsored athletic competitions, let out a statement that changed the lives of so many young athletes. The statement originally postponed athletic events until March 29, 2020, but as we know, the true volume and risk of COVID-19 was severely underestimated. While most sports were able to play full seasons, the Strake Jesuit Baseball team only played a handful of games.
When asked what their first reaction was to the cancellation of games by the UIL, current SJ players all look back on that time wondering what could have been. Senior Cameron Holy said that he was disappointed because "we believed we would make it far into the playoffs and be one of the best teams Strake ever had.".
Holy had a reason to believe that the 2020 team had a chance to go down as an all-time great team in SJ Athletics history. At the time that games were originally canceled, the Crusaders were looking to keep their hot streak going with a win in an afternoon game against Clear Brook at Markle Steel Baseball Field. At that point, The Crusaders were dominating every single one of their games, outscoring their first five opponents 51-4. The squad was led by pitcher Drew Leach, who now plays for the University of Baylor, as well as dual-sport standout Dylan Campbell, who is expected to start at the collegiate level as an infielder for the Texas Longhorns alongside another former Crusader, Zach Zubia '16. Both Drew and Dylan, as well as the rest of the seniors on the team, played their last high school game just days before in a tournament game against Edinburg on March 6th.
To say that it was a difficult offseason would be an understatement; countless postponements, Zoom meetings, home practices, and a whole lot of waiting is what the Crusaders had to deal with over the course of the last 10 months. Senior Connor Bartlett said "The biggest difficulty was definitely staying active. It was hard to go out and work because a lot of places were closed for a while…", referring to city and state-mandated shutdowns related to COVID-19.
While Strake Jesuit started their school year in August with fully online classes, and then eventually to a hybrid model weeks later, offseason programs for sports like baseball were still postponed until further notice. Junior Nick Sullo recalls the first time he remembered meeting with the entire team in person since March, saying "I believe it was a few days or maybe the day that Strake [Jesuit administrators] said it was okay to go to school fully", that was in late October.
Flash forward to now, January 2021, the Crusaders have hit the ground running with team workouts, lifts, and full practices. The team is optimistic that they can keep up the momentum that they had nearly a year ago, even with some fresh faces. One of those fresh faces is Junior Jake Vobbe, a Long Beach State commit who recently transferred from Episcopal High School. Right when he joined the team, Jake realized how great of a group he was joining, especially the teammates that are also in the Class of 2022, as he said "Our junior class at Jesuit is extremely exciting. We have guys all over the board. We already have 3 Division I commits and others going through the recruiting process right now.".
As Jake noted, he is not the only college committed player on the team. Both Garrett Stratton and Trey Duffield will play for the Rice Owls after they graduate from SJ in 2022. Just like many of his teammates, Garrett has extremely high expectations for the Crusaders this year, as he said "We think we have what it takes to compete for a district title.". He also recognizes that the recent UIL realignment changes who they play during the season, but he says that it "...doesn't change our process. We're excited to see some new teams, but the goal is the same.".
The Crusaders will start their season off with a scrimmage against Cy Fair on Saturday, February 6th at Markle Steel Baseball Field in front of a socially distanced crowd. If you are unable to attend SJ athletic games this year, but would still like to catch the games from the comfort of your home, make sure to subscribe to SJET News on YouTube for all of the streams presented by student-led Crusader Sports Network.
HOUSTON – Joseph Sam wanted to keep his routine as normal as possible.
The Fort Bend Hightower coach the last two weeks on gameday pulled on his black cap with the Hightower logo in the middle and threw on a green quarter-zip pullover even though he wouldn't actually be at the playoff games those nights due to being in close contact with someone with COVID-19.
"I tried to keep my routine as normal as possible, so I got dressed up for the game," Sam said. "I didn't want to change up my routine because I was in the house."
Since December 9, Sam has been quarantining at his home with his wife Mickala, who contracted COVID-19.
Earlier in the week, Sam said she had started to show symptoms, so he had already been distancing himself from his team in case she did test positive so that the team wouldn't be caught up in contact tracing and potentially be eliminated from the playoffs because of it.
"I didn't want to be the reason we got shut down," Sam said.
Entering this week, three Houston-area teams have already been eliminated from the playoffs due to COVID-19 cases and Sam didn't want his to become No. 4.
While getting a team ready for a playoff game is every coach's main priority, Sam had to take care of his family first and then at the same time making sure his team was ready.
"Once I found out I told the coaches my No. 1 priority is taking care of my wife," Sam said. "The good thing was she had mild symptoms the whole time. She never had any major symptoms, which was a blessing in itself.
"You just do it. I don't really put a strategy behind it, your wife needs you, your team needs you and you just manage it all from the house."
With his wife testing positive two days before the game, Sam had to shift gears - reverting back to the Spring - and socially-distance coach the day before his team was set to face undefeated Port Arthur Memorial, meaning he would not be there for the game.
"It was agonizing, I'm not going to act like it wasn't because you want to be there with the kids and the coaches," Sam said about missing the game.
Sitting in his home, Sam watched his team upset the 9-0 Titans, 41-34, and win the program's first playoff game since 2013.
Thrilled over the win, Sam recorded a video of him yelling – "Let's go! We did it! Curse over!".
"I was pretty fired up," Sam said with a laugh. "I knew we could win. I just didn't want there to be a letdown with me being gone. You know all the resiliency from everything we've been through came to fruition in that Port Arthur Memorial game."
Curse broken #eat #family #bringhometheship pic.twitter.com/Ie9FsmGPF2— Joseph Sam (@coachjsam) December 12, 2020
The win pushed the Hurricanes into the second round and set up a meeting with Pflugerville Hendrickson.
At the beginning of the week, Sam said his wife was doing much better and started not showing symptoms anymore. But he would still have to quarantine.
"We just had to get as creative as we could during that second week of practice," he said. "We did Zoom meetings, they would FaceTime me into practice to where I could see it and make corrections where they needed to be made. Obviously, HUDL is an awesome tool where you can make notes on practice film and kind of let the kids know what you are seeing. I was texting kids and coaches back and forth."
While Sam was trying to get his team ready for their second playoff game, his main priority was taking care of his wife.
During meetings with coaches or even his team, Sam would step away to take care of her and doing it very carefully so he would not contract the virus.
"I was taking care of her and doing it smartly by wearing a mask, gloves, taking each other's temperature, and then disinfecting everything in the house once we use it," he said. "It's tedious but it was well worth it."
The tedious attention to detail paid off for the Sam's.
On Friday, the morning of the Hurricanes' game against Hendrickson, Mickala got great news. She was negative for COVID-19. That night, Sam – dressed in his gameday attire – watched his team win 44-14 and advance to the Regional Semifinals for the first time since 2011.
He posted another celebration video but it was his next Tweet that really hit home.
Standing in front of their Christmas tree, Sam with a huge smile held up a little whiteboard with a message – "My wife is COVID free & We're going to Round 3!!!"
"That was my wife that did that, that wasn't me," Sam said about the whiteboard. "We found out my wife was COVID-free on Friday morning, so I was fired up about that, she had been symptom-free since Monday. With her being COVID free and us winning that game made it that much sweeter."
Have an awesome update for everyone as well #eat #family #beatcovid pic.twitter.com/oNlThvbUo3— Joseph Sam (@coachjsam) December 19, 2020
Sam has been in self-quarantine since December 9 and never showed symptoms of COVID-19 and Monday was his last day to have to quarantine.
Meaning, today, Sam will return to practice with his team as they prepare for the Regional Semifinals against Manvel.
"I'm just excited to see them again," Sam said. "I'm tired of seeing them through Facetime and Zoom."
In his absence, Sam has leaned on his coaching staff to keep the team going in the right direction while he was at home taking care of his family.
And they did just that.
"I'm extremely proud of them," Sam said. "They kept the ship going without me being there. I told the coaches before I left that the X's and O's they'll take care of itself. But the culture will help us win these two playoff games.
"I think our coaches did an excellent job of executing the gameplan in both games and they did a good job of keeping the kids focused. We also have some really good senior leadership as well. It's just a testament to the culture of the program when you have to step away as a head coach and the coaches and the kids are able to keep the culture going like you want it."
Now, with Sam back the Hurricanes will try and continue their deepest playoff run since 2011 with a win over Manvel, who they played earlier this season.
"Those guys do a great job, I respect the heck out of those coaches over there," Sam said. "It'll be a good slugfest to be a part of again. Our kids are not afraid of them. Our kids are confident after playing them one time. The game kind of got away from us late and I think we'll be better because of it this time around."
So, this week when Sam get dressed for gameday on Christmas Eve morning, it will be to actually go to the game and coach his Hurricanes again.