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How local college, high school baseball players are handling eligibility relief, MLB Draft and potential roster crunches

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Hylton graduate Blake Coleman wants to play a fifth season for the University of Maryland Eastern Shore’s baseball team.

But whether he can depends on two questions: is there a spot for him on the roster? And if there is, can he financially afford to return as a graduate student, especially since he’d pay more at the public university by being an out-of-state student?

“That’s a lot of money,” said Coleman who will receive his undergraduate degree in May in exercise science. “I could use that for something else. It’s tough. I would love to go back. But a lot would have to happen for this to get set in motion.”

When the NCAA ruled March 30 that Division I programs could grant spring sports senior athletes an additional year of eligibility after the coronavirus outbreak cancelled seasons in mid-March, the decision came with stipulations.

Each school determines if they want to provide an extra year of eligibility for their senior spring sports athletes and how much athletic scholarship money to award to them, if any.

The NCAA said schools are not required to offer more athletic financial aid to a senior than it has received in the past, but can give less or none at all.

Division I baseball programs have a total of 11.7 athletic scholarships to dispense each year among 27 of the 35 players on the roster with no scholarship player receiving less than 25 percent of one full scholarship. For underclassmen who already had eligibility remaining after the 2020 season, their aid must remain at the same level.

While teams can expand rosters beyond the 35-player limit without the returning seniors counting against the athletic scholarship pool, there remains the challenge of how to meet financial needs and even academic ones as schools navigate this atypical process on a case by case basis.

Coleman said he has been in contact with his coaches, but nothing has been finalized yet.

“Everything is up in the air,” said Coleman, who received athletic scholarship aid in his first four years at Maryland Eastern Shore.

Available scholarship money and roster spots are two of the issues colleges and seniors are dealing with in figuring out their next move. Playing time is another consideration. And in the case of baseball, so is the shortened Major League Baseball Draft scheduled for the end of July.

All these factors will shape 2021 rosters in various ways and impact not just seniors, but returning underclassmen and incoming freshmen.

James Madison University head baseball coach Marlin Ikenberry is being patiently proactive during this process, understanding this remains a fluid situation for the time being.

Ikenberry had eight seniors on this season’s team. He expects at least three of them, including Battlefield graduate Brady Harju and Hylton graduate Fox Semones, to come back. Harju is definitely returning, but Semones could pursue pro baseball if the opportunity arises even if he’s not selected. Ikenberry said the athletic and versatile Semones drew hard looks from scouts before the 2020 season ended.

Instead of going 40 rounds in years past, Major League Baseball’s 2020 draft will run at least five rounds, but perhaps no longer than 10 rounds. Major League Baseball has yet to finalize the exact draft dates and total number of rounds.

Undrafted players, meanwhile, will receive a maximum bonus of $20,000, an appealing enough number for seniors to at least consider since they would on average receive that amount in a normal draft year. It’s also an attractive option if money is not an object, but starting a pro baseball career as soon as possible is.

Ikenberry said his main focus has been on helping the seniors determine what they need to do academically if they return to school. Harju still needs to complete some classes to receive his undergraduate degree. Semones, who will graduate in May with a degree in engineering, would go to graduate school if he returns for another year.

‘We’re still working through things,” Ikenberry said. “The intention of the NCAA is great. Now it is figuring out the logistics of having an idea of what they need to graduate if they come back.”

Ikenberry said the return of seniors should not impact the incoming freshmen as everyone competes for playing time.

“It’s not a negative,” Ikenberry said. “They are excited to see the seniors come back. This is all new to them. They wouldn’t be sure what to expect in college baseball. It gives us more depth and more opportunities to move them around.”

As programs receive more clarity, Ikenberry has refrained from looking too far ahead. He’s held off placing his players in summer leagues in case those leagues don’t play. The Valley League, which usually hosts a number of JMU players, has already cancelled its season.

“The biggest thing is we’re encouraging [the players] to get into a routine, work hard and do what they can do,” Ikenberry said. “The focus is being a responder not a reactor.”

Battlefield graduate James Beasley said he wanted to return to George Mason University as soon as head coach Bill Brown said all the seniors were welcomed back.

“From day one, [Brown] said he believed the NCAA would do the right thing,” Beasley said. “He said we’d have a spot as long as the NCAA allowed it.”

Beasley, a right-handed pitcher who began his college career at Hofstra followed by one year at Frederick Community College, said Brown is best college coach he’s played for.

“It was nice to hear that he was willing to have us back,” Beasley said.

Beasley received athletic scholarship money as an underclassman and said the school is hoping to provide at least some amount for next season.

But if not, Beasley said his family can pay for graduate school, a cost he said would be lower than what he’s paying for undergrad classes since he’s taken extra courses to make up for credits that did not transfer from his previous two schools. Beasley is In the process of applying to graduate school where he’d like to get a master’s in sports management.

“I realized I wasn’t ready to let go of sports for the foreseeable future,” said Beasley, who will receive his undergraduate degree in business management.

Beasley also isn’t worried about playing time.

“I’m someone who is blindly confident in my ability,” Beasley said. “I’m assuming I will have a spot. And if I don’t than that’s nobody’s fault but mine.”

While seniors like Beasley look forward to another year of eligibility, incoming freshmen wondered how that decision impacts them.

Colgan senior outfielder Ryley Johnson said he remains in a good spot with East Carolina.

“They told me nothing has changed,” said Johnson, a first-team Class 6 all-state selection and the Cardinal District Player of the Year last season. “That’s the good part because the freshman class is a lot bigger. The competition might be harder, but I’m willing to fight for my spot.”

Johnson said ECU is only expecting three of its four seniors back, which he said won’t affect his scholarship amount either.

Johnson is expected to compete for the Pirates at full strength. He was scheduled to miss his final high school season after having surgery in December to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder.

Johnson met with his doctor Monday and was scheduled to begin swinging a bat Tuesday.

Usually incoming freshmen arrive at college early to take classes over the summer to lighten their workload during the season. Johnson said he will do on-line classes and enroll in August instead of July.

“It’s a very good program,” Johnson said of ECU baseball. “When I get there, I’ll be ready.”

Forest Park senior Griffin Boone said VCU reassured him as well about his situation.

“I had no idea what was happening to us,” Boone said. “The confirmation made me feel good about things.”

Coleman is hoping for some clarity soon. He’d love nothing more than to close out his college baseball career on a better note.

Coleman learned the 2020 season was over while going to a team study hall after one of the underclassmen said there was no need to go.

“The next few days I wasn’t depressed, but I was in a horrible state of mind,” Coleman said. “We packed our stuff and hit the road. I will be at peace about it but I wasn’t.”

One of six seniors on the Maryland Eastern Shore roster, Coleman was enjoying his best season. A career .196 hitter in his first three seasons, Coleman was batting .347 in 13 games.

“To be honest with you, this will haunt me for the rest of my life,” Coleman said. “Everything was going so right.”

David Fawcett is the sports editor for InsideNoVa.com. Reach him at dfawcett@insidenova.com

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