For Navy baseball senior second baseman Zach Biggers, this was supposed to be an exciting end to his time as a Midshipman.
Navy was likely headed to the Patriot League tournament, which features the league’s top four teams. The Mids would’ve been looking for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2016, perhaps after wrapping up a sixth straight Patriot League regular-season title. In the classroom, Biggers would be finishing his last week of classes before his last round of exams. After that, it would be on to commissioning week, which ends with the new officers throwing their caps into the air at Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Instead, the coronavirus pandemic means Biggers is spending his days almost 600 miles away in Walhalla, S.C. Practice and games have been replaced with lifting weights and golf. The final week of classes and graduation were replaced with online classes and commencement. Biggers and his classmates have been reminiscing on social media, trying to celebrate even as they’re scattered across the U.S.
“My classmates, they miss each other, they miss Annapolis,” Biggers said. “They’ve been through a lot and want to finish. Everything happens for a reason and it’s given everyone a different perspective.”
Head coach Paul Kostacopoulos said his team knew about the coronavirus going into the season but didn’t think it would be that big of an issue. As February turned to March, the threat became more real. After a March 8 win against UMBC, the two teams didn’t shake hands postgame.
Three days later against Maryland Eastern Shore, Biggers and Navy’s three other seniors wondered whether it would be their last game. The NCAA had announced that day that the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournament would be played without fans. The NBA suspended its season that night after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus.
The next day, everything came to a halt. At 10 a.m., Kostacopoulos got a call that the season would be suspended March 15. He called the seniors to his office to tell them the news, giving them the option to travel to Bucknell for what was supposed to be the first series in Patriot League play. The seniors said they wanted to play and were prepared to go to Lewisburg, Pa., before the series was canceled.
“There was no real lead-up to this unprecedented step of cancelling everything and it all happened within 36 hours,” Kostacopoulos said. “It wasn’t something you could prepare yourself for because I don’t think anyone was prepared for it.”
When the season was cut short, Navy was off to a 14-1 start, its best start to a season since 1961. The Mids reeled off 14 straight wins after a season-opening loss to Georgetown, which is the second longest-streak in program history.
Navy didn’t have the star power it had in 2019, instead relying on depth and scrapping together wins. Patriot League Pitcher of the Year Noah Song was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the fourth round of the 2019 MLB Draft, but only one other pitcher from last year’s team graduated. Patriot League Player of the Year Christian Hodge and Liam Lowery graduated after hitting 36 of Navy’s 56 home runs in 2019, but the Mids still returned two starting outfielders and three starting infielders.
To help replace Song’s production, sophomore Charlie Connolly (1.04 ERA in four starts) stepped up and became the team’s top pitcher, with junior Trey Braithwaite (0.71 ERA in 13.1 innings pitched) building off an All-Patriot League campaign to lead the bullpen. Freshman Alex Smith (.368/.457/.526) was the team’s top hitter, helping complement a trio of productive seniors: Evan Lowery (.341/.500/.477), Jacob Williamson (.308/.383/.462) and Biggers (.270/.356/.317).
That blend of youth and experience meshed well, allowing Navy to pull off some memorable victories. The Mids swept Air Force Feb. 22-23, with Biggers hitting a walkoff in the 10th inning of the final game after the Falcons tied the game with two outs in the ninth inning. The Mids were no-hit against Penn State March 6, but continued to battle and capitalized on a Nittany Lion throwing error in the bottom of the 11th inning for another walkoff win.
Then in Navy’s final game against UMES, Smith’s two-out, two-run single in the top of the ninth gave the Mids a 6-5 lead before Braithwaite shut the door on the Hawks in the bottom of the inning.
“I think the chemistry, loving to be around each other and loving to play the game together goes miles,” Braithwaite said. “We’re fighting for each other and when you actually care about who you’re doing it with, and the good leadership, I think that’s why we were having the success we were.”
As college teams across the country try to figure out an ever-changing present, Navy baseball knows what it has in its future. Despite losing the four seniors, the Mids will return every pitcher and will have several underclassmen ready to take the next step.
Under Kostacopoulos, Navy has had 10 30-win seasons in 16 years. The Mids had just three in the previous 109 before he arrived. Assistants Jeff Kaine and Bobby Appelgate have both been at Navy for six seasons, which doesn’t always happen at Division I programs. All three know they need to recruit not just the right player, but the person who can handle the unique requirements of the Naval Academy.
It has led to success and a culture that allows Navy to be one of the best teams in the Patriot League year in and year out.
“We find players who are unique people,” Kostacopoulos said. “I’m astonished at the combination of student-athlete and patriot at the Naval Academy, and you can do a lot with that.”
Photo Credit: Phil Hoffmann/Navy Athletics