With the shutdown of such prestigious summer collegiate leagues such as the Cape Cod League and the Alaska League, the level of play in the Sunflower Collegiate League is expected to go through the roof.
That was the message delivered by the staff and management of the Newton Rebels to its players Monday afternoon at Klein-Scott Field as the team assembled for the first time.
The Rebels get less than a week of practice, opening the season at 7 p.m. Saturday at Klein-Scott Field against the 316 Elite, a National Baseball Congress World Series qualifier from last season.
About 32 players reported Monday for a team meeting and the team’s first workout.
"We actually did pretty well (recruiting) considering the situation," Rebels general manager Mark Carvalho said. "I’ve been coaching for like 37 years and I’ve never had to deal with a situation like this — temperature checks, all of the things we’ve had to deal with. We had a couple of kids from Taiwan who couldn’t make it because flights were restricted. We had a couple of other kids who couldn’t make it because of what we have going on in America and the world. When the other leagues closed up … I was getting e-mails almost daily. We lost some quality guys, but we got a lot of (NCAA) Division I guys – and that’s been going on in the whole league. We’re going to have the most Division I guys ever."
In the past few years, Sunflower League rosters have been made up primarily of junior college, NAIA and NCAA Division II and III players. Most of the Division I players in the league were either reserves or players who needed to stay close to home for summer class obligations.
"Next year, when other leagues open up, a lot of those players will go back, but this year, the league is loaded," Carvalho said. "Everybody has them, so it will be pretty competitive."
The Rebels are coming off a 21-19 season, 16-18 in league play. Newton finished five games out of the division lead and 4 1/2 games out of the final NBC World Series berth given to the league.
Last year’s team was hampered by an eight-game losing streak in league play, all by one run.
"On a recruiting basis, we’re looking pretty good," Newton field manager Brett Clark said. "We have more offense than we’ve ever had before. We have some guys who can pitch it. It doesn’t matter what the league’s going to do, we just have to take care of ourselves. You have to win early now, just because you don’t have that first couple of weeks playing. You have to win now."
While most of the players got just two to three weeks of play before their college seasons were shut down, Clark said it was now up to the individual player to take responsibility to stay in shape. Since most pitchers weren’t able to throw, he won’t be running up pitch counts early in the season.
One of the top returners is pitcher Zach Bravo, starting his third summer with the Rebels.
The Lamar University junior from Albuquerque, N.M., was 1-0 in four games this spring with a 2.95 earned-run-average, 21 strikeouts and four walks. Bravo had four saves in eight games with the Rebels last season with a 0.90 ERA and 21 strikeouts. He was an NBC All-American in 2018.
"It was definitely weird going home and not being on campus," Bravo said. "I haven’t been at home that time of year in four years. The majority of the classes I had were online, but I had a couple of them that were pretty tough. … I got four starts. I definitely got in the groove before the season was shut down."
Bravo was drafted last season by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 29th round, but with this year’s MLB draft (which starts this week) being cut to just five rounds, he doesn’t expect his name to be called.
"I’m hoping," Bravo said. "But with just five rounds, a lot of those picks are going to guys in Power-5 schools. I was thinking I would go in rounds five to 10, at least that’s what I’ve been told. I really haven’t heard much in the last few days."
The format for the NBC World Series has not been set, but the field may be cut to as few as eight teams. Much of that will depend on if the first-year, Class AAA Wichita Wind Surge is able to play this season.
"Everything has just been crazy," Carvalho said. "All the other coaches and GMs have just been shaking our heads. We’re trying to keep a positive attitude."
No guidelines have been set yet for home attendance, but all games this year will be webcast on YouTube on the Newton Kansas Rebels channel. Frank Martinez and Kansan managing editor Chad Frey will be among the play-by-play announcers.