It’s unlikely Alex Ryan will pitch competitive innings again.
The Lakeside Lutheran senior is expected to play outfield on a partial scholarship at Valparaiso next season, so missing his senior year isn’t the end of his baseball career. But, from a baseball sense, playing baseball and pitching while playing baseball are different things.
When asked specifically about that fact — Ryan went silent. He understood the magnitude of not playing this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic responsible for infecting people with covid-19.
Regardless, Ryan tries to maintain a positive attitude.
“I really wanted to make a deep run in the playoffs again this year,” Ryan said. “I was looking at returning players we have and I thought we could do some damage this year. I know we didn’t do too hot in the regular season last year, but we put it together at the end of the season and made it to the sectional finals, we made a deep run.”
Ideally, the Lakeside Lutheran Warriors would have picked up where they left off. Ideally, they would have given crosstown rival Lake Mills a run for the top spot in the Capitol North. The L-Cats were the 12th in a Division 2 preseason poll.
“Last year, we started slow and nobody really thought we’d be on the list. We fought and proved everybody wrong last year and I think we earned some credit from the way that went,” said Lake Mills senior Riley Zirbel, a first-team all-Capitol North player committed to playing at McHenry County College. “(In the Capitol North), most everybody else had a lot of seniors last year — everybody was going to be super young. We were going to be young too, but all of our young kids were already playing. We would have had a good chance to win (the conference) again.”
While the L-Cats may have had their sights set on higher accomplishments than winning a conference title, Zirbel had personal ambitions to get into a groove and be ready to go for his first fall season at McHenry County College, a two-year junior college north of Chicago. Zirbel hopes to spend two years there and can move on to a four-year, scholarship-level team.
“I was going to use this season to get ready and take my next step,” Zirbel said. “I was hoping to grow and see live pitches and getting a bunch of reps to be mentally and physically prepared. I’m lucky enough to have a batting cage in my shed. I’ve been hitting every day in my shed.”
When the WIAA officially canceled the 2020 season, Ryan’s priorities were slightly adjusted. He said as soon as the season was postponed, he adjusted his workout regimen to go into offseason mode — which means building strength and bulk instead of getting in baseball-specific shape for the season.
“When this virus was something we were unsure about, I would go to STiKs (Academy) to work on throwing and getting my arm in shape for the season. Before you knew it, you go from season back into the offseason just like that,” Ryan said. “I definitely focused on working out more than arm care. I didn’t want to get my arm into mid-season form only to sit.”
To maintain his strength and continue growing, Ryan has been able to workout at the fitness center in the hotel his dad manages. Ryan also has been able to travel to STiKs Academy in Waukesha to train. He said both places have implemented strict hand-washing protocols and disinfectant wipes always are nearby.
Traveling to workout or batting with Lake Mills teammates at various fields has offered the opportunity to share experiences and perspective with other seniors who are victims of similar circumstances.
“To have the last quarter of my senior year taken away feels bad, it feels frustrating,” Ryan said. “I was hitting with Zach Storbakken at STiKs, he goes to Sussex Hamilton, we were talking about how tough it’s been. It’s tough talking about not experiencing these last moment. I was hitting with another friend in Lake Mills and we were talking about how much we missed it and how it doesn’t seem (fair).”
Coaches, parents and teachers are urging students to stay positive and look for the silver linings: Zirbel did just that.
“I realize I get to play more baseball, I am just more or less sad for my teammates that didn’t get their last season and won’t play baseball again,” Zirbel said. “I’m using that as a driving factor to get out and not take anything for granted.”
In contrast with the negative outlook of not being able to pitch competitively again, Ryan was quick to point out a unique positive to come out of the pandemic.
“I’ve been able to workout at the fitness center in a hotel my dad manages,” said Ryan, “and it’s been good to spend that time working out with my sister. That’s not something that would have happened normally. It’s definitely tough but you have to be a little bit innovative; you have to be creative; and you have to stay positive.”