NORMAL — The cancellation of summer baseball within both the Prospect League and the Midwest Collegiate League could have left plenty of individuals — players and coaches — without opportunities they’re typically accustomed to having.
It still has, for some of those folks.
Others, however, landed within the new wood-bat Kernels Collegiate League.
The name is a play off the Normal CornBelters summer league team, which is one of four programs competing for the inaugural — and possibly only — Kernels League crown. Joining the CornBelters, a Prospect League team, are the 2019 Midwest League champion Bloomington Bobcats and two other members of the Prospect League, the Quincy Gems and the O’Fallon (Mo.) Hoots.
The four clubs meet for two total games five nights a week at the CornBelters’ Corn Crib, lasting from July 1 through Aug. 9.
“When the (Midwest) league started getting canceled, I just figured I wasn’t going to be playing baseball this summer,” said Alex Marquardt, a 2018 Monticello graduate who spent the previous two summers with the Bobcats and this year is on the Kernels League’s Hoots. “Now that we’ve been given the opportunity, everyone’s out there competing. It’s just a high level of competition out there.”
Marquardt is one of four former local prep standouts across the Kernels League rosters, joining Prairie Central alumnus Ryan Rhoda (Bobcats), St. Joseph-Ogden graduate Austin Cain (Hoots) and Georgetown-Ridge Farm product Garrett Latoz (Hoots).
Marquardt currently is a pitcher at North Central College in Naperville, and his sophomore season abruptly ended back in March when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the United States.
“A lot of us kind of couldn’t believe it,” Marquardt said. “It’s nice to be back with friends and teammates playing baseball. It’s an escape from the reality of the pandemic we’re in.”
Jon Goebel was in the midst of his own second college baseball season — his overseeing Parkland baseball in Champaign — when the pandemic forced the Cobras to shut down activities.
Goebel, who also has past ties to the Champaign Dream travel baseball program, received a phone call from Bloomington Bobcats general manager Mike Brown once the Kernels League was established.
And that’s how Goebel came to be coach of the Gems, which has a roster that includes recent Parkland graduates Anthony Silkwood and Chase Gockel.
“I jumped at the opportunity as soon as (Brown) said he was looking to fill this spot,” said Goebel, who noted he can’t have any current Cobras on his Gems roster because of NJCAA rules. “I’ve been keeping busy. … It’s definitely been worth it.”
Neither Marquardt nor Goebel experienced much trepidation about getting back to baseball work while in a pandemic.
“When the opportunity came up, my wife was like, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’” Goebel said. “I was like, ‘I’ve never had a spring off in my life that I can remember.’ Just even the first week, the first couple of games, you feel like a kid again.”
There’s plenty that differentiates this form of summer league baseball from its predecessors.
The Corn Crib, which can hold up to 7,000 people, is not allowed to be anywhere near capacity in an effort to practice social distancing. But people can still go.
“We’ve had good crowds as far as pockets,” Goebel said.
Goebel said the facility staff disinfects the clubhouses nightly and takes care of laundry, and players are encouraged not to share equipment.
For Marquardt, who is being used as a relief pitcher, the only discernible difference he senses beyond the relative lack of fans is not being provided any sort of water as players are required to bring individual bottles or jugs.
“Besides that, it’s just like daily life,” Marquardt said.
Some unique relationships have formed for both Marquardt and Goebel, as players from various colleges are spread out across the four teams. Some with past rivalries are setting those aside for the good of a summer league squad, while others who usually are friends have been forced to duke it out.
“I’ve played with or against a lot of the guys in the league,” Marquardt said. “Two guys from North Central play on opposing teams. One is my catcher in school (Rob Marinec), and I’ve faced him four times now. We always talk about that after the game.
“There’s some guys that go to Illinois Wesleyan, which is one of our rivals … on my team right now. So we’re all cool with each other.”
“I’ve got guys from … other junior colleges we compete against,” Goebel added. “It’s cool to be around those guys. … Baseball is baseball. Wherever your dugout is those are your guys, and I’ve loved it. I’m thankful that the league happened.”