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Senior Salute - Air Force Baseball: Honoring the class of 2020

If there’s one thing I know about service academy athletes, it’s that they are the epitome of resilience.

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As the world is currently in different stages of fighting the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s becoming abundantly clear that virtually every facet of our lives will be affected in some way. The tragic loss of life to the illness is the greatest concern, but there is an entire generation of youth who will grow up with a concept of infectious viruses that most of us never had concern with, outside of movies and TV.

While there are more pressing matters than cancelled classes and cancelled sporting events, these effects on day to day life marks a departure from the things that ground us. Sports have always been an escape. When the United States held its breath as President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch after 9/11 in Yankee Stadium, we’ve had sports to lean on as an escape from the harsh realities of what’s going on in the world. This time, it’s different.

As fans, it’s an annoyance. Not being able to kick back and enjoy a full slate of March Madness games, having to forego the first signs of spring with a competition for a green jacket among the azaleas, and missing out on the sweet smells of fresh cut grass and pine tar on opening day are heart-breaking, but it pales in comparison to how the players are feeling.

Yes, sports are an escape for us, but for the athletes, these games and practices are metaphors for life.

When the NCAA cancelled all athletic competitions for the rest of the year, athletes who worked their entire lives to make college rosters had their plans changed in an instant. Of course, the NCAA is working out a plan to give seniors extra eligibility, but this is simply not realistic for service academy athletes who will graduate and serve on active duty.

To be perfectly frank, Air Force baseball was unlikely to be on the doorstep of a historic season. They were 7-12 before their series against Minnesota was cancelled along with the rest of the season. They hadn’t even had a chance to play against Power 5 schools like Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, or 14-4 New Mexico.

There’s a phrase that gets tossed around to the point that it’s become a cliche, but “bigger than sports” is something that rings true when you think about what a cancellation means, even in a season that wasn’t necessarily slated for a big post-season.

This was the first season to be played since 2018 Air Force baseball alumni, Travis Wilkie, passed away in a training accident while flying in a T-38 at Enid AFB, OK on November 21, 2019. For players from the class of 2020 who were lucky enough to call him a teammate, you have to think baseball is something that has gotten them through incredibly tough times. It’s not just about missing games. It’s about no longer having the opportunity to share the struggles of training, the successes of winning, team trips, and the camaraderie that they were robbed of due to this outbreak.

Shawn Kelley

Photo courtesy of goairforcefalcons.com

Shawn is a right handed pitcher out of Texas. In 2020, he pitched 6.1 innings before the season was cut short, and he totaled 7 strikeouts. He has been a strong reliever and has been an integral part of the bullpen since his freshman year. In his junior year, he struck out 25 batters total. Upon graduation, he will be a missiles officer in the Air Force.

Ashton Easley

Photo courtesy of goairforcefalcons.com

Ashton is an outfielder with a solid bat. This season he held a .299 batting average and had 23 hits with 8 RBIs. Over the course of his career, he had a .364 on base percentage and he’s even made some appearances on the pitcher’s mound. As an Air Force prep school product, he was also on the football team during his year at the P.

Jeff Gerlica

Photo courtesy of goairforcefalcons.com

As a right handed pitcher, Jeff has been a part of Air Force’s reliever rotation since his freshman year. He totaled 30 strikeouts over the course of his career. In 2020, he had three strikeouts in one inning against South Dakota State. He only began pitching in his junior year of high school and has earned Academic All-Mountain West honors.

Josh Leaser

Photo courtesy of Twitter @jdlease25

Josh is another senior pitcher who has held the Falcons’ bullpen together. He had a 1.88 ERA in 2020 and had 41 strikeouts over his career.

In addition to these seniors having their season cut short, Coach Mike Kazlausky earned his 200th win on February 29th, only weeks before the season would end. As a coach who cares for his team more than probably any coach I’ve ever seen, this has to be a devastating way to end this year’s campaign. As an Air Force Academy baseball alumnus, Coach Kazlausky understands what the team means to the players and how much this situation hurts.

Eventually, when the virus is under control, things will return to normal. It will be a new normal, as this pandemic will likely shape the way we work, live, and play for an entire generation, but a whole class of athletes will have to move on without the closure of seeing their athletic careers come to a satisfying conclusion. If there’s one thing I know about service academy athletes, it’s that they are the epitome of resilience. Although they may struggle with what’s happened to their athletic careers, this time will become a part of their experience, and hopefully they will be able to focus on the good times that they had, and not just on what could have been. I offer a big salute to all of those athletes and it’s rewarding to look back on their careers and think that this class will soon graduate and go on to be leaders in the greatest Air Force on the planet.