This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on athletes returning to UTA’s sports teams after the pandemic shortened their senior seasons.
Before the pandemic caused the suspension and cancellation of collegiate sports, the UTA baseball team was having a strong season with a talented roster.
Head coach Darin Thomas said he felt bad for his team’s seniors after the cancellation because of how well the team was performing. The Mavericks had a record of 12-4 going into their first conference series against the University of Arkansas at Little Rock on March 13.
“You have a lot of emotions because of the unknown, you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Thomas said. “I’ve been here 21 years, and that was the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here talentwise.”
Senior Dylan Paul was having his best season as a Maverick, having a career-high .303 batting average, along with a .988 fielding percentage in 14 games played.
Paul said it was tough to see the season end early because of the success his team had attained.
“I felt good, and it was like, as a team we were rolling. We had that confidence, we were going out there every night and doing exactly what we wanted to do,” Paul said. “Just trying to make that happen again this year has been the whole goal this fall, and I think we’re doing pretty good at it.”
Not knowing if he and the rest of the team’s seniors would be granted an extra year of eligibility was rough for Paul. He said returning to the team was an easy decision.
“There was maybe a month or so before the NCAA made the final decision, where we were all kind of sitting waiting around,” Paul said. “It didn’t take long to figure out that we were all going to come back.”
With the pandemic still in full effect, nothing is guaranteed for athletes. Paul said it’s a weird feeling he has when he wakes up every day.
“There’s nothing you can do about it. So we just sit there, and we do what we’re told, and we follow the rules,” he said. “It’s been going pretty well, in terms of, [we] haven’t been shut down yet this fall.”
During the offseason, Paul went home to Allen. Being home and staying close to school and his teammates made a weird time feel normal, Paul said.
“I went home for a few weeks, maybe a month, and then the rest of it was just spent up here with my roommates,” Paul said. “We kept the same routine and we’d go work out.”
When it came to training, Thomas understood gyms were closing during the quarantine, so he told his players to do what they could until they could gain access to weights. With no immediacy of a return to play, it took pressure off athletes to train.
“As far as working out, it was basically old school,” Thomas said. “It was go to your local high school track [or] play some catch.”
Paul said he would work out where he could, but he tried other methods of training.
“When gyms opened I would go to the gym,” Paul said. “I am probably the opposite of a runner, and even I went to go run a couple of times, just to do something.”
When Thomas heard rumors that the NCAA would allow seniors to return, he was more concerned with whether UTA would grant the players an extra year.
“The NCAA can allow whatever they want, but our schools got to be able to give the OK, too,” Thomas said. “It was immediate where they said, “Hey, we’ll support the seniors.’”
Thomas said he was keeping up with rumors and finding out new information over Twitter. He said he was seeing tweets with all sorts of information, from no players getting an extra year, to all seniors coming back.
In the end, it was up to Paul to decide if he would come back to UTA for another year. He said he was prepared to move on and take a job until he got the news of an extra year of eligibility.
“I had a job lined up, and I told them I got to come back,” Paul said. “I think I would’ve regretted this later in life if I didn’t do it.”
The motivation and hunger Paul has to recreate what his team did last season is one of the reasons he wants to take advantage of his second opportunity. He said everyone is on the same page, and the goal is the same as last year’s.
Volunteer coach Galen McSpadden knows firsthand how hard Paul has worked to be at UTA. He coached Paul from 2015 to 2018 at Seward County Community College.
McSpadden said Paul came into Seward County wanting to be a pitcher but showed more potential playing as an infielder and outfielder.
“[Paul] ended up playing some right field for us and hitting in the four hole, playing first base and giving us some innings,” McSpadden said. “You don’t do that in that short period of time without having some kind of a work ethic and a good positive character.”
Paul said his love for the game is hard to put into words. He said it has brought people into his life and taught him a lot of lessons.
“I started playing when I was 3, but I probably had a ball in my hand before that,” Paul said. “I really don’t know where I would be without it.”