Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer
Pitt baseball held its first team practice of 2021 on Friday, over nine months after the team’s last game — a long wait for a team coming off of a promising shortened season.
The 2020 campaign got off to a nearly perfect start for the Panthers, who won 10 of their first 11 games. This stretch included sweeps of Eastern Michigan, Lehigh and Central Connecticut State, tying for the second-best start in program history.
But Pitt reached a sudden slump. The team dropped five consecutive games, getting swept in its first ACC series against Miami. But by then COVID-19 had started to spread in the United States, and soon the NCAA cancelled all spring sports for the rest of the season, ending the Panthers’ season on a sour note.
For senior infielder David Yanni, the decision could’ve meant the end of his baseball career. But the NCAA later voted to grant an extra year of eligibility for all spring athletes, giving the seniors something to look forward to.
“It was devastating for a lot of guys, I didn’t know if I was going to put on a baseball uniform again,” Yanni said. “But we’ve taken this year by the horns, and we’ve worked really hard and we’re excited to get back on that field.”
Pitt players had to find a way of keeping themselves in shape and their skills sharp. Thankfully for senior outfielder Nico Popa, he could practice with his brother and now teammate — first-year outfielder Dom Popa.
“My brother [was] around when we had to go home when the season was cancelled,” Popa said. “We were able to get our lifts in, and there was a local field with some cages which was luckily open. So we would try to go there as often as we could.”
Others decided to tune up their repertoire. Sophomore pitcher Billy Corcoran focused on his mechanics.
“One thing I worked on over the offseason was my offspeed pitches, and my breaking pitches,” Corcoran said. “It’s just training every day, working out and keeping your arm strong.”
Pitt head coach Mike Bell announced the upcoming conference schedule for the Panthers on Jan. 18. It consists of 12 ACC opponents as opposed to the normal 10, and several ranked opponents. Bell also announced on Friday that the non-conference schedule is set, but the dates have not been made official yet. According to Bell, Pitt will play 14 games outside of the ACC, including a rematch with Indiana State.
Bell has gone on record saying this conference schedule is the hardest in his current stint as Pitt’s head coach, and his team agrees with that statement.
“We’ve never played this many conference games before, and most of our opponents got a lot of their players back,” Popa said. “The competition level will be high, but I think our team is ready for it.”
Like its conference rivals, Pitt brought back several players from last year’s roster, including most of the starting lineup. Last year’s team consisted of six players who batted .300 or better in the shortened season. Sophomore outfielder Kyle Hess hit for a .373 average and a .627 slugging percentage. He’s part of a Pitt outfield core that Bell believes will prove integral for the success of the team going forward.
“We have a good group of guys, me, Ron [Washington Jr.], Nico, Jordan [Anderson], and we have some young guys for the future,” Hess said. “We’re really deep, and that creates a more competitive environment.”
Bell said the 2021 season could potentially have several obstacles, which might result in postponed games, or even the entire season. But he said that he’s spoken to several coaches who played in the fall or winter, boosting his confidence that his team can navigate the pandemic.
“Our leadership here within our athletic administration has done a phenomenal job of preparing us for something we’ve never gone through before,” said Bell. “We’ve tried to stay attuned to what the other coaches had to go through, so we can learn what we have to go through.”
The Panthers have scheduled No. 24 Florida State as their first opponent on Feb. 26, but Bell hinted that non conference matchups will occur before then. The team must quickly prepare for a season right around the corner.
“Our expectation is to get out each and every day,” Bell said. “We’ve got a ball game to play in 21 days.”