When college athletics reached its abrupt end in early March, it was immediately very apparent that those most impacted by the cancellations were the student-athletes.
At this point, all stories involving the hurt and pain suffered by college athletes at their respective programs is old news, but it does not mean that the cancellations that occurred as a result of COVID-19 were any less hurtful to those athletes that we as fans enjoy watching each and every day of the year.
Of the programs in the Southeastern Conference, it can be argued that few programs were saddened by the sudden cancellations more than the Alabama baseball team.
Starting out 16-1, the Crimson Tide were well on their way to making their first appearance in an SEC tournament since 2016. While the seniors and upper-classmen like Brett Auerbach and Tyler Gentry were impactful to the program with their impressive bats and fielding, what stood out the most was Alabama’s freshmen and their dynamic debuts with the program.
Freshman outfielder Owen Diodati was one of those freshmen. After a stellar start to the season with his bat, Diodati quickly became a mainstay for the Crimson Tide, seeing action in all 17 games and starting 14 of them.
In an exclusive interview with BamaCentral.com, Diodati recalled the emotions that he and his teammates underwent during that fateful early March.
“It all happened so fast,” Diodati said. “Obviously it crushed us just because all of us knew we had a special team and we had a chance to do something really good with that team. A lot of our goals looked like they were in reach so for us to hear that it was definitely pretty heartbreaking.
“It was a crazy roller coaster of a week.”
In Alabama’s opening weekend series against Northeastern, the Canadian phenom recorded six hits, five of which were for extra bases including three home runs. His eight RBIs were enough to earn him SEC Co-Freshman of the Week.
“It was obviously really fortunate to be able to start the season and start contributing right away,” Diodati said. “I think that’s what we’re all trying to do is just find ways to help the team win and for me to be able to come in obviously as a young kid and a freshman be able to help in that aspect was definitely big. With the start that we were off to it went about as well as it could have.”
Diodati kept up his momentum after his strong opening weekend. In the 17 games that he saw action, Diodati accounted for 17 hits and 13 runs in 55 at-bats with a batting average of .309. He registered 22 RBIs, five home runs and was walked 13 times.
Like many other student-athletes across the country in this difficult time, Diodati can’t help but sit and ponder on what could have been. However, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t approach it with a sense of optimism.
“The one thing about this team that I think was really special and you don’t see a lot is the chemistry we had,” Diodati said. “It’s kind of like that sixth tool that every team needs is the chemistry. All the guys got along. We all had similar goals and we all wanted to win. We were all willing to do whatever it took to win so I think that was the most special thing about that team. The great part about that is there’s a lot of core guys coming back next year and we’re going to have that same mentality that we did this past year and hopefully put together a similar start and head in SEC play and start really winning some games.”
It is encouraging to see that the players of Alabama baseball are already looking forward to next season and look to ride out last season’s success.
That being said, the 2020 season is over. Diodati’s days as a true freshman are over. With the season and semester now over for all Crimson Tide athletes, that begs the question: what are they up to now?
Instead of returning home to Canada to be with family, Diodati decided to remain in Tuscaloosa with his other family: his Alabama teammates.
“I’m lucky to have great teammates that are willing to let me stay here and I just thought it was a better fit for me to stay in Tuscaloosa just with the weather being a lot better here than in Canada,” Diodati chuckled. “I definitely wanted to work out and do whatever I could on my own time with baseball so that’s kind of what I’ve been doing ever since then. That’s about it.”
With social distancing and quarantining now essential practices in our current society, college athletes have been forced to work out at home with gyms closed. While there are starting to be openings here and there, particularly in the southern United States, staying in shape has been difficult for the student-athletes.
“With social distancing and quarantine and things like that we’ve had to be really careful,” Diodati said. “Obviously things are starting to open up in the South a little bit based off of what I’ve seen in the news and things like that but for the past little bit it’s been a lot of home workouts and training on our own baseball-wise.
“I’ve tried to stay in the same routine of working out every day and doing what I can baseball-wise every day and I think that’s what’s important is just staying in that same routine regardless of your lack of access to equipment and things like that.”
In late March, less than a month after the NCAA had cancelled the spring sports season, the association granted all spring sports athletes an extra year of eligibility in order to make up for the lost playing time that the student-athletes suffered. While there are still plenty of kinks that need ironing-out, the general feelings surrounding the NCAA’s move are positive.
With this in mind, Diodati will still be a freshman next year. In some ways it’s as if the season never happened. While the Crimson Tide hasn’t released who will be returning to the diamond next season, the upcoming June MLB draft and various player announcements will likely reveal the who will be returning.
Diodati is happy that he and his teammates will get another opportunity to prove what is so special about their team.
“I think it’s a great thing that guys are getting the extra eligibility,” Diodati said. “I don’t really know what’s happening with our players or any of that. I think I’ll leave that up to coach [Brad Bohannon] to kind of figure that out. That’s way above anything I can understand. I’m sure whatever happens in that aspect we’re going to be great and we’re going to be just fine.
“We’ll be ready to go next year for sure.”
Despite the shell shock that the Alabama players went through on that brutal weekend in early March, spirits among the team remain high. While they are all being forced to perform personal workouts at home and will never truly know what they could have done had the season continued as scheduled, the players are all itching to get started on next season.
Armed with an extra year of eligibility, Diodati and his Crimson Tide teammates fully intend to rock the college baseball world in 2021.
“The one thing I learned throughout this whole thing is to never take for granted what you got,” Diodati said. “Being away from baseball and not being able to play with my teammates is definitely an eye-opener like how much I miss it and how much love it. I think for the whole team it’ll just be something that we take into next season is you never know what could happen so live in the moment and just be thankful for what you have.
“I have no doubt that next year’s team is going to [have] that same mentality as last year and we’re going to work hard throughout the fall and winter and be ready to go next spring and hopefully be able to go to a College World Series.”