February marks the start of college baseball season. Starting as early as the first week of February, teams gear up to get back on the field for another year in the sun.
College baseball doesn’t strike the mutual fanbase that draws millions of fans to major college basketball and football. However, it still draws close to many hometown fans, college friends, alumni, and parents. In Division III, most fans are mutual friends and family.
However, in Bluffton, Ohio, March 2 marked the two-year anniversary of the fatal bus crash that took the lives of five players, a bus driver, and his wife.
On March 1, 2007, a charter bus loaded with players and coaches left a small, 1,100-student college in the tiny town of Bluffton. Shortly after 5 a.m. the next morning, in Atlanta, GA, the bus driver mistook an exit ramp to a highway overpass for a High Occupancy Vehicle lane.
The bus slammed into the retaining wall at the top of the exit ramp and flipped back onto the highway below. Tragedy soon struck a small college town that was connected like the “seven steps of Kevin Bacon.”
In NCAA Division III, colleges do not have the capability of awarding athletic scholarships to college athletes. Players pay their way through college, some with the help of grants and academic scholarships.
Athletes play their sport for the love of the game, not a potential professional paycheck. Some make it, but most don’t.
Bluffton University, an affiliate of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, is located in upstate Ohio, in a populated town of about 3,500.
Baseball players come to this college for the opportunity for competitive baseball with the chance to continue their education in a small-school atmosphere. Students are connected to one another like a high school. Team members are supported by friends and family, not a die-hard fanbase that lives and dies by the team’s wins and losses.
For most small school baseball teams, the end of February and beginning of March mean spring break baseball in Florida. The state hosts many month-long tournaments for teams to catch nice weather before the season gets started in the unpredictable Midwest and Northeast spring season.
Spring break baseball means team bonding. Getting out the kinks. Clear skies. Girls at the beach. Sunshine.
Bluffton spent their 2007 spring break mourning deceased friends and praying for injured ones. Everybody has their time to go; however, this was too early for these young boys.
Two years after the crash, Bluffton won their doubleheader with 9-0 and 3-2 wins over Eastern Mennonite University.
This spring, when March Madness hits the nation and opening day kicks off the Major League Baseball season, remember the little guys who worked to get back on the field for one more year.
The college baseball players that busted their butts raising funds for travel and expenses. Players that worked out at 6 a.m., went to class for the next four hours, studied, went to practice and studied some more, all on their own dime.
Remember Scott Harmon, Tyler Williams, Cody Holp, David Betts, and Zach Arend, the five players who died in the crash.
Most importantly, remember that for three months before the College World Series starts, these players work hard, almost daily, to play the great game of baseball. Not for a professional contract, but for the love of the game.