By Drake Toll | LTVN Managing Editor
A called strike three blew past Houston’s Bethany Busch on March 10th at 9:40 p.m. in game two of a doubleheader against the Cougars. That was the final play of the Baylor softball season.
Just 24 games into the young year, the 19-5 Lady Bears were ranked No. 18 in the country and boasted unbelievable promise. They had already surpassed their win total from the season prior, and just finished a clean two-game sweep of Houston in Space City.
That’s when the NCAA took the ultimate precaution to combat COVID-19 by cancelling the remainder of the winter and spring seasons for all sports, making ‘what could’ve been’ a phrase that will forever haunt Baylor’s 2020 campaign.
For seniors like infielder Taylor Ellis, a Waco native who played in 184 games for the Lady Bears, it seemed like they had donned a green and gold jersey for the final time — and never knew it.
“It was just all a shock at first,” Ellis said in a phone interview with the Lariat on Thursday. “It being senior year, you know it has to end eventually, but not being able to do it on your own terms is just different. No one in my family got to watch my last college softball game ever … that was a whole new slap in the face.”
In the wake of the season’s cancellation, there was talk of the NCAA affording all spring athletes an extra year of eligibility, but for many, the logistics were far from perfect. This applied especially for Baylor senior Kyla Walker who reluctantly had to choose to hang up her cleats for good no matter the NCAA’s decision.
“People are ready to move on with their lives,” Ellis said. “How do you put your whole life on pause for another year? It’s a difficult decision, something to not be taken lightly, and [we’re] definitely understanding if you can’t make it happen … we just want everyone to do what’s best for them.”
But in Ellis’s case, what’s best for the senior is playing softball. The NCAA ruled on Monday that all spring athletes would be given their season back, and she will return to the Baylor program to reclaim her senior year.
“The NCAA made the right decision,” Ellis said. “I’m super excited to be back. This is what I was hoping for the whole time.”
Head Baylor softball coach Glenn Moore agreed with Ellis over the added eligibility.
“To have the opportunity to come back and play another year, especially for our seniors, I think [is] huge,” Moore said on a Zoom call with media Tuesday. “From the feedback I received from my girls, it was important to each of them.”
With players across the country now able to return to the game, Ellis will get the opportunity to play a season she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to finish.
“It’s not very often you get another chance like this,” Ellis said. “Everybody is starting over. There’s always a newness, a freshness to that. Just a lot of relief, honestly. Not that I had any regrets about the season, but it’d be nice to write it on my own terms.”
As for her other fellow seniors, Goose McGlaun is still undecided, while Gia Rodoni and Nicky Dawson have confirmed they will be joining Ellis at Baylor again next season.
“Gia is on a mission,” Ellis said. “She deserves that senior year. I knew there was no doubt with her. [With] Nicky, the same thing.”
For McGlaun, the inside recruiting for the power hitter to continue her career is in full swing. Ellis said that the players all want McGlaun to return but that she hopes the first baseman makes the best decision for herself.
Ultimately, this unique situation has furthered Ellis’s understanding that life goes much further than the diamond.
“Softball is special to us, but it’s not everything,” Ellis said. “This pandemic has really shown us that life goes on without softball … We’ve gotten to really see what’s important in our lives. Softball is amazing, but you know it does end.”
As for next season, the Baylor roster will be much larger with five incoming freshmen joining the bunch. With a mix of senior experience and young talent, Moore and Ellis both touched on next season being far from the rebuilding campaign it was supposed to be.
“This is a great group of seniors, and next year would’ve been a rebuilding year for us,” Moore said. “Every one of these kids are special in their own right and can compete on the highest level … Expect to have a lot of great inter-squad games where the cream will rise to the top and we’ll put together a pretty good product on the field.”
According to Moore, the parity from this unique situation also means that Ellis, who moved positions multiple times this past season, will have the opportunity to find a home in a familiar place at shortstop while bringing stability to the infield.
On the issue of scholarships, details are still up in the air, but Ellis said that Baylor is doing its best to provide for spring athletes.
“Baylor’s a great place, and they want to do what’s best for the athletes,” Ellis said. “They’re trying to find that solution. There is a lot of fluidity to that, but I do know that Baylor is going to make it work for the athletes one way or another.”
After all the twists, turns and uncertainties, you can count on seeing Ellis on the field next year with a hungry crowd of Baylor fans and teammates backing her.
“Sports are so special,” she said. “They really bring people together, and I think seats everywhere are going to be sold out once this thing is over, because people are going to realize how much they missed it.”