Softball is a sport of constant adjustment whether it’s a coach positioning players in the field depending on a certain hitter’s tendencies or a batter adapting to an umpire’s strike zone or an outfielder learning the nuances of the walls at an opposing team’s stadium. Steve Babinski at Indiana Wesleyan believes the nature of the sport is a prime reason why softball players were able to handle the shutdown of the 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic in a manageable way.
“We have a benefit being a softball sport, how we adjust how we teach the game, adjust every inning, adjust to different scenarios on a constant basis,” said Babinski, who begins his 11th season at Indiana Wesleyan.
Like many other programs, Indiana Wesleyan’s 2020 campaign came to a screeching halt just as the team was finding its groove. The team had returned from a successful run at THE Spring Games, had a doubleheader at home, and then were told to evacuate the campus unknowingly in preparation never to return until August.
“We thought we might be able to play again, but then had to make gut-wrenching phone call to seniors who wouldn’t be returning and to the rest of the players that the season would not happen,” Babinski said. “The coaching staff immediately began to adapt and created virtual meetings, virtual workouts, devised and implemented summer workouts early. We tried to have fun with how we connected. We wanted to make sure they get a personal connection from us, created small groups in the team that met weekly, bible studies, emotional support, connected about their virtual classes.”
Babinski likens his program to a family so he made sure he and his coaching staff were in constant contact with the players and that the elder statesmen of the team did well in maintaining the communication. Faith is also a large component to the culture at Indiana Wesleyan.
“Our relationship with them is really good,” Babinski said in reference to Indiana Wesleyan being a Christian university. “Our culture is strong. We walk through life with them, pray over them, do bible studies. Don’t get me wrong, just because we can adjust doesn’t mean that there weren’t emotional moments and tough times. I’ve had to restock the tissue box several times.
"I learned the best time to receive bad news is yesterday, cutting to the chase, not doing any hypotheticals. Letting them know there’s no season was difficult and had to give them time to process, but we stayed on them often to see what questions they had, see what thoughts they had.”
- Steve Babinski
As in any season, Babinski also leaned on faith as a guide to his leadership, particularly Christ’s example of humility in Philippians 2:1-11.
“That verse is useful and powerful in a time like this,” Babinski said. “It talks about our attitudes being the same as that of Christ Jesus where he was equal with God but he didn’t consider quality with God that’s something to be grasped but he humbled himself and made himself a servant and became obedient to death and death on a cross. Even with COVID as gut-wrenching as it is, our amazing opportunities to have our attitudes be the same as Jesus.”
One of those ways was to reach out to people in need.
“Our girls really took it upon themselves to use the opportunity to speak with people who aren’t doing as well,” Babinski said. “The players reported during our virtual group meetings that it was helpful to both them and to the others talking to friends and family members who were really struggling with the pandemic and quarantine. They offered advice and spiritual help and used their platform to reach out and try to encourage and lift up.”
When the team finally did return to campus, Babinski said it felt as if there was already an intangible connection that allowed them to move forward in a relatively seamless way.
“When we did meet it was hard because we wanted to give each other hugs but we had to practice social distance,” Babinski said. “It was very emotional but it wasn’t teary emotion. It was more of a celebration of getting through it all and being back together. Normally it is exciting but this was next level excitement, first day of school type of excitement. But we did our best and we got right to the nuts and bolts of how the season would progress. We talked to them about using each day as a gift and be ready for whatever might happen. Create as long a runway as possible because you never know if and when the season might be interrupted.”
The No. 19 ranked NAIA school began each practice at 5:17 a.m. as a metaphor for the NAIA World Series beginning on May 17. It will begin its 2021 campaign with a doubleheader at Indiana Tech and will travel to THE Spring Games in Florida with games scheduled in the first week of March.
The players are taking classes in person on a campus where many other students have opted to learn virtually which has allowed the team to become even closer as a community. While it isn’t a necessity for everyone who is a part of the program to be a practicing Christian, Babinski gives a Bible to each player so they can learn as the season progresses so as “everyone has the same bible, if someone isn’t strong in their faith or has no faith and investigating it so they can be on the same page and can reference passages knowingly.”
“We remind them of faith and we start practice by having one player daily contribute and encourage others with their faith or what they’re learning through the journey,” Babinski said. “Periodically we break up into three-dimensional groups, 3D groups, see every side of each other where they can be real, see every side of each other, as in disciples discipling disciples.”
While the team hasn’t been able to do its normal bonding fall and winter retreats nor have they been able to serve the community in a charitable fashion by participating in the Tim Tebow national event called Night to Shine (prom night experience, centered on God's love, for people with special needs ages 14 and older), they have served in different capacities, namely with Operation Gratitude in which the players have sent care packages and letters to troops overseas.
“The soldiers appreciate the care packages but the soldiers love the letters the most,” said Babinski, whose brother served in the military. “We get told how they pin-up and reread and reread the letters. We get an opportunity to speak about who we are and we get an opportunity to share our faith, thank them for their service. That’s something we can do where we have no idea the ripple effect, but I know from my brother having served and understanding how it is overseas so those words are huge.”
From a purely logistical standpoint, Babinski and the coaching staff had to figure out if any kids wanted to take the extra year of eligibility this season as a senior and who might use the extra year next season and beyond. Like every other collegiate program, Babinski has had to navigate the budgetary aspects of it all, especially in accordance with NAIA’s limit of 10 scholarships.
“This is obviously the biggest team I’ve ever had,” Babinski said. “I’ve had to tell seniors and juniors that there is scholarship money I’ve guaranteed to freshman and incoming recruits and that if they want to stick around they can but the money isn’t there for them. They can choose and the program and the school can figure out ways to help them through academic scholarships but the money isn’t guaranteed.”
Babinski would not share the details of what the program and the school offer but he did say that they stack academic and athletic and “offer good competitive packages if kids are bringing in good grades.”
Additionally, the program had to be creative with how it has raised money for out-of-state tournaments like the Spring Games in Florida. Typically, the program would run a plethora of big high school exposure camps on campus in the indoor facility also used by other programs such as track and field but because of state regulations, it has had to curtail that.
To meet the budgetary demands, Babinski ran more camps but limited the attendance at each of the camps during the Christmas break when the state had begun relaxing some of the restrictions. From December to mid-February, Babinski was able to produce almost the same amount of money with 12 smaller camps than he normally would be able to do with the bigger camps.
“It’s been a blessing,” said Babinski, who reluctantly ran camps on Sunday as a way to meet the demands. “Sunday is normally a day of rest and worship but we made do.”
Now as the team gets set to embark on another unknown season, Babinski sees it as another opportunity.
“We’ve really created a greater sense of community and family,” Babinski said. “Before it was academics first and athletics second, but the way the campus is and the way the team has approached it all, it’s allowed a lot of team effort with everything and with everyone helping each other out with athletics and academics and life problems. It’s allowed a lot of team effort and I’m seeing a healthier culture. Heading into games and I honestly think we are better because of it all and we’ve become stronger and we found a lot of positives coming out of quarantine. We’re itching to play someone other than ourselves and we want to get the longest runway possible before our opponents or ourselves have to stop for a day or a week."