Pandemic reduced opportunity for players

February 23, 2022

Ken Lester, Staff Writer

When the Laney College baseball team took the field in their season opener on January 27 against De Anza College, it marked what should be the beginning of a return to normalcy for a squad that for the past two seasons has played abbreviated schedules due to the spread of Coronavirus.

The 2019-2020 season ended for the Eagles after 21 of their scheduled 40 games on March 13, 2020, as California’s first shelter-in-place order began, and although play commenced for 2020-2021, the season would span only 20 games.

1970-71 Laney College Baseball Team. Source Laney College Student Handbook 1970-1971.

In addition to the shortening of the schedules, the pandemic also forced the California Community College Athletic Association to abandon their playoffs at the end of the last two seasons, an action that hasn’t been taken since the origin of the association’s State Championship tournament in 1950, 16 years before the Laney Eagles played ball for the first time.

The shortened seasons coupled with an elimination of playoffs resulted in what were, from a records and statistics point of view, essentially meaningless games. Beyond the negative effects this had on the mindset of players, the pandemic had even more impactful consequences that potentially altered the courses of careers and lives.

Head Coach Francisco Zapata. Source Laney Athletics website.

Head coach Francisco Zapata, who once played third base for Laney, and helped them reach the CCCAA final four in 1993, earning First-Team All-American honors along the way, noted that the few years athletes spend in the community college system can be critical in shaping the paths that lie ahead of them and that the season alterations forced by the pandemic created a lack of opportunity.

“The truncated season also truncates the opportunities. Colleges were looking at you, all of a sudden COVID happens, [and] things are now backlogged – so there’s challenges that are going to have some lasting effects,” Zapata said.

Beginning his coaching tenure at Laney during the 1996-97 season and taking over the reins as head coach in 2000-01,  Zapata has seen his fair share of success stories and life-changing opportunities presented to players because of their success on the field, crediting them as the reason why he continues to coach. 

“There are going to be those life-changing moments,” Zapata said, “and that’s why we’re here.” 

He added that he aims to create a safe place for players where they feel they can excel.

Zapata also had high praise for his coaching staff, who he says also suffered due to the pandemic. 

“They love what they do. They don’t get paid a lot. And in many cases – I got two right now that are just donating their time.” He didn’t mince words on how much he relies on them.

“My coaching staff has a dedication and a love for the game that I think is irreplaceable,” Zapata said.

Asked if the team was excited to get back to a full schedule and an opportunity to dig for a playoff appearance Zapata had a simple answer:

“Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.”

RJ McDowell, Pitcher/Outfield. Source Ken Lester/The Citizen

Barring any setbacks in safety protocols due to the pandemic, Laney College will continue to play what is scheduled to be a full 40-game season when they return to the diamond on Thursday, February 24, against Cañada College at Laney College Baseball Field where they will play their second of three-straight against the Cañada Colts. The Eagles will look to follow-up their 4-2 victory against the Colts on Tuesday, and extend their winning streak to three games for the first time this season, which would improve their record to seven wins and seven losses.

To follow the Eagles here is a full game schedule for this season, although at the time of this writing, game times are not publicly posted.