Story by DANNY BAEZA
Photos by BRAD LAPP
Everyone knows that being a student-athlete is extremely difficult. But, does anyone ever think to ask, “What goes into the day-to-day process of being a Division I baseball player?”
The University of Utah has an outstanding athletic department with nationally ranked teams such as football and gymnastics. However, other sports such as baseball seem to go unnoticed.
So, what does go into getting the ball moving on a day-to-day basis, and what does it take to be a baseball player?
“In the fall, it usually starts with a lift in the morning around 7 am. Then, I get some breakfast to refuel after the lift. Next up is class from 10 a.m. to1 pm. From class, I head over to practice which usually starts at 1:30 p.m. Once we finish up there at around 5 p.m., I head up to get some dinner, then head home to get done with all my homework and hopefully in bed by 11 p.m.,” says Justin Kelly, a redshirt junior on the pitching staff.
Kelly is the Friday night starter for the Utes, considered by many to be the leader of not only the pitching staff, but also the team itself.
When it comes to what it takes mentally, Christoper Rowan Jr., a redshirt junior on the team says, “It takes a mature mental approach because baseball is a game of failure and if you get down on yourself you can continue to spiral downward.”
Rowan enters his fourth year with the team listed as a catcher/utility player.
Concerning the academic aspect of being a student-athlete, Kelly notes, “If you can put forth the energy to be successful on the field, you’ve got to be putting that same energy in the classroom.”
First-year athletes are expected to complete two hours of study hall a week. Along with the study hall, players are given tutors when needed and are counseled by the athletic academic advisor.
Behind the scenes, Logan Nehls manages all the logistics of getting a Division I baseball program rolling. Recently, he was awarded the position of director of operations for the program after working as an equipment manager within the Utah Athletic Department.
“I’m responsible for a lot of the logistics of the program, whether it’s coordinating meals, buses, or travel accommodations,” Nehls says.
Nehls has had his hands full. As the season gets underway, he not only has to focus on how to travel, feed, and house 35 people, but also do it while juggling COVID-19 precautions.
Athletics come with a toll, especially in a sport as mechanical as baseball. Justin Kelly suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his freshman year, forcing him to sit out for 22 months. “I had never been through any sort of injury before, let alone something as serious as Tommy John Surgery. I leaned heavily on my teammates, friends, family, and training staff to keep my head in a good place while I was getting back to good health,” Kelly says. Tommy John Surgery being the process of repairing a torn ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow.
Rowan, on the other hand, has had to go under the knife twice to repair an injured shoulder. “The second surgery crushed my spirit,” Rowan says. “I lost my love for the game for a while and if it wasn’t for my little brother pushing me and being there for me when I needed him I would have given up.”
Baseball is a game of failure. A player with a .300 batting average fails 7 out of 10 times, yet he is still considered an all-star. Managing those seven failures thus additionally makes baseball a mental game.
Rowan admits, “It’s inspiring to see little kids who want to be just like you. Kids who look up to you because you have made it this far.” That is what motivates him to keep pushing forward.
For Justin Kelly, his family motivates him. “I want to get to the point where my family is financially taken care of and I can say I’ve gotten to the point where I belong where I should be.”
Remembering to focus on what motivates them is what helps these athletes continue on, and to push through the demanding lifestyle of a student-athlete.
Not only is college baseball a difficult business, but it is another social outlet for these young men.
“I’ve created relationships that will last the rest of my life here. Some I may even consider family, that’s how close we have become,” Rowan says.
When it comes to relationships with coaches, Justin Kelly says, “I consider them sort of father figures where if I’m having any life issues or problems, I know they will take the time to listen to me and help me out the best they can.”
Kelly has advise for the next generation of ballplayers. “Don’t be discouraged when things don’t go your way, just put your head down and get back to work.”
Rowan says, “I would say that if you dream it you can achieve it. But, dreaming is only part of what needs to be done.”
Division I baseball is a difficult lifestyle, but when it comes down to it, it is nothing but young men playing a game they love.