Editor's Note: This story first appeared in The Daily Texan's February 2 print edition.
After a layoff of almost 11 months, it’s official: Opening day is less than three weeks away for the Texas baseball team.
The Longhorns had their own “opening day” last Friday when they returned to UFCU Disch-Falk Field as a full squad for the first time this year. Last year’s team started an impressive 14–3 before the season was shut down due to COVID-19.
“Today feels like a fresh start,” head coach David Pierce said in a Jan. 29 preseason teleconference. “The one thing I was really impressed with the team is they look great. When they came back, they were in shape. I think you can really see their appreciation of coming back.”
Texas was unable to return to practice over the summer, instead spending their time on Zoom calls that “started getting really old,” Pierce said. While the team was able to get back on the field in the fall in limited fashion due to health and safety protocols, pitchers’ arm health was one of the biggest issues after the extended layoff.
“The health factor tells us that for longevity, for our guys to have a shot to be healthy in April, May, June, we’re going to have to be a little more cautious early on,” Pierce said.
One player in that pitching group who Pierce said is ready for day 1 is redshirt sophomore Ty Madden. Madden will take over the reins as the Longhorns’ Friday starter after an impressive sophomore campaign and the departure of ace Bryce Elder to the MLB Draft.
After Madden and likely Saturday starter redshirt freshman Pete Hansen, the pitching rotation is still an unknown, with a mix of veterans and true freshman competing for the Sunday starting role and jockeying for bullpen innings.
“We joke about us being the old guys and always talk about how we’ve seen a lot of some of these young cats,” redshirt junior pitcher Tristan Stevens said.
Stevens might be listed as a junior, but the relief pitcher is in his fifth year of college. He’s part of a group of Texas veterans that have been around the program for a long time and stuck around due to the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA after last season was cut short.
Redshirt senior Austin Todd was last year’s best hitter, according to Pierce, and the outfielder is in his fifth year as a Longhorn. Redshirt junior Zach Zubia will continue his power hitting duties from first base in his fifth year as well. Both of those players might have left Texas to go pro had the MLB Draft not been shortened to five rounds.
“For us, it’s kind of like we’re soaking it all in,” Stevens said. “Because of how the season unfolded last year, it can be taken away from you really quickly. That's what we're trying to let these (freshmen) know, like, ‘You're here and I know we have these goals but enjoy it, enjoy each day because it can be taken away from you.’”
Texas will need Todd and each player it can get in a season where COVID related absences are expected. But right now, the No. 9 Longhorns have their full squad intact and are looking forward to a daunting three-game series to kick off their season in Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, on Feb. 19 against No. 7 Mississippi State, No. 8 Arkansas and No. 6 Ole Miss.