COBDEN — Ah, the middle of September. Shorter days, cooler nights and high school baseball.
High school baseball in the middle of September?
“If we didn’t have high school baseball at this time of year,” said Cobden coach Dana Pearson, “I don’t know what our boys would do.”
Pearson would know better than most. A 1973 graduate of the Union County school, Pearson played fall ball. Now he’s helping continue a tradition that he and Shawnee coach TC Schaefer believe has been around since the mid-1950s.
Cobden and Shawnee played on Friday at Blayne Smith Field, where Shawnee took advantage of a plethora of Cobden mistakes early to post a 10-2 win. Schaefer pointed out after the game that it was the first time in his five years at the helm that he defeated their South Egyptian Conference rival.
But fall baseball, in most cases, is less about results and more about the opportunity to work on things. Pearson compares it to spring training, where playing for the sake of playing is as important as winning.
There is precedent for that formula. Cobden has long boasted one of the area’s best small-school programs. From 1977-2012, Smith posted 700 wins, finishing second in Class 1A in 1987 after a championship loss to a much bigger Columbia program.
“We always felt that fall baseball was a reason for our success,” Pearson said. “We would play in the fall, get things straight then and be ready to roll in the spring. We’d be ahead of a lot of people, and we’d beat big schools like Herrin, Murphysboro and Marion.”
A handful of SEC schools, along with Woodlawn, play on the varsity level in the fall. Pearson remembers as recently as 10 to 20 years ago that the SEC fall games would count in the standings for the spring. In fact, the conference held a fall baseball and softball tournament as late as 2010.
While these games aren’t necessarily win-or-die, Schaefer believes his players are taking them a bit more seriously this year than they might have in other years. That reason is the same one that brought sports to a standstill for several months, starting on March 12.
“They understand that a baseball season can be taken away from you in the snap of a finger,” he said. “They learned it last year from the start of the COVID stuff. They’re here to play now. The only good thing about COVID coming around is that it’s maybe woke the boys up to play.”
Schaefer coached his team Friday as though there were a championship at stake. He exhorted players to be aggressive at the plate and on the bases. When his first baseman was a bit slow coming off the bag after holding the runner, Schaefer pantomimed the proper technique for getting into a good fielding position before the next pitch.
Like Pearson, he’s helming a program with a good tradition. Shawnee won nine consecutive regional titles from 2007-15, finishing third in Class 1A in 2013 under Chad Pitts with a 30-8 record.
“If you know anything about Shawnee High School, it’s always been a baseball school,” Schaefer said. “With fall baseball, it’s always about getting things squared away so we can move forward in the spring.
“It’s very important to us, me and my players. We’ve always had it, so if they ever took it away, our boys would be wondering what’s going on.”
Shawnee was off and running right away on this day. They scored three in the first and led 9-1 before the fourth inning was over. Right-hander Caleb Nicholson pitched into the seventh inning before running out of gas on an 84-degree afternoon, picking up a well-deserved win.
After a lengthy postgame talk — and yes, it was socially-distanced — Pearson noted that his current team had no seniors. And noted that having baseball games again has brought a sense of normalcy.
“We’re a baseball community,” he said. “You saw our turnout. It’s been really good therapy. I think it’s even been good for the parents.”
Get in the game with our Prep Sports Newsletter
Sent weekly directly to your inbox!