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Bucs' Pennucci: 'Reality kind of punched us in the face'

Joe Avento • Mar 16, 2020 at 12:56 AM

JOHNSON CITY — As the sports world came screeching to a halt last week, coaches all over the country had to make the same speech to their players.

For some, it was the toughest talk of their careers.

Joe Pennucci, East Tennessee State’s baseball coach, had his team on a roll. The Bucs were 12-3 with a win over No. 24 Clemson to their credit, so when he told his players the season had been put on hold, it was an emotional moment.

“Thursday was Black Thursday for college baseball,” Pennucci said. “It was kind of a devastating day because reality kind of punched us in the face.

“The good thing is I think we’ll react well. I think all of college baseball will. We’ll bounce back. The most important thing is keeping everybody healthy and safe.”

As word spread that the Southern Conference had suspended all athletic competition through at least March 30 because of the coronavirus pandemic, Pennucci knew his season was in jeopardy. The NCAA had already canceled all winter and spring championships, meaning there won’t be a College World Series or NCAA regional in the Bucs’ future even if they should win the SoCon championship. Now they’re not even allowed to practice.

“It’s super disappointing,” Pennucci said. “I know our guys are real disappointed. We put a lot of work in. We get here in August and do all that stuff in the fall. The fall season is pretty demanding. Then we get in the spring and compete and tee it up, so it’s disappointing for a lot of guys.

“It was emotional to tell them we’re no longer practicing, that we’re not doing anything until further notice.”

Trying to cope with the uncertainty of the situation might be the toughest aspect of the whole ordeal.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever said ‘I don’t know’ more than I have in the last 24 or 48 hours,” Pennucci said.

ETSU has already had a three-game series at UNC Wilmington canceled. The team was not quite halfway to Wilmington when it received word to return home. The Bucs were supposed to play a nonconference game against Winthrop on Tuesday before jumping into SoCon play this week with a home series against league power Mercer.

Instead, they’ve gone their separate ways.

“I think the biggest thing for me was just making sure they’re safe and with their families,” Pennucci said. “Really, we’re just in a holding pattern.”

At least some good news came before the week was finished. An NCAA panel backed giving athletes in spring sports an extra year of eligibility.

“It looks like the NCAA’s done the right thing,” Pennucci said. “I think that’s huge and needed. Thankfully the NCAA did come up with that. There’s a lot of moving parts with that, but that’s a great step forward.

“Most of the time nobody wants to end their career and you certainly don’t want to end it as a baseball player in March. I think a lot of them will take advantage of it. I think the majority of our guys love to play. They love ETSU and they love the direction of the program.”

Pennucci speaks often about the direction of the program, and that’s one of his greatest disappointments about this disruption. He was genuinely excited about what his team was about to do.

“You put so much time, you put so much effort into everything,” he said. “From the summer in how you’re going to prepare to who’s going to step up and be a leader and who’s going to do these things, and I feel like we had that. I feel like our leaders really shined and we ended up winning a lot of games because of it.

“I really feel like we were going in the right direction, wins-loss wise. But really more than that, it was great to see all these guys kind of sharing the moment. There was kind of a new hero every day. Every person had a piece of the pie and it was a pretty tasty pie. I just hope we can move forward, whenever that might be.”