As a fifth-year senior, Nic Mertes was already something of a graybeard on the Rockhurst University baseball team. Next year, he’ll get to be the wizened old sage.
Mertes is getting that chance thanks to the NCAA, which ruled recently that spring sports athletes whose seasons were wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic will receive another year of eligibility. For Mertes, a catcher and 2015 Blue Springs South High School graduate, that means a sixth year of suiting up for the Hawks.
And if anybody wants to call him “Pops,” he’s just fine with that.
“As a competitor that’s not the way you want to go out,” Mertes said. “You don’t want your last season to be taken like that. If I didn’t play a sixth year I don’t think I would have had the peace of mind leaving the game.”
Mertes’ swan song was supposed to be last year, and it would have been had he not injured his thumb in the season’s first game. He played all three games in the series, but the pain never subsided. Turns out the thumb was not only broken, but he had torn a ligament in it, too. That meant season-ending surgery.
“It just kind of felt like a jammed thumb,” Mertes said. “It didn’t feel like anything too crazy. But after the pain didn’t go away I decided let’s go and get this checked out.”
It was a tough break for Mertes, especially after starting behind the plate for 36 of Rockhurst’s 40 games the year before. He batted .355 that year, and he was off to an equally solid start this spring in his redshirt senior season.
A season that ended after 17 games.
“Our last practice we were hitting in the cages and having a good time, talking and joking around,” Mertes said. “And we’re getting all these notifications on our phones – the NBA, the NHL, they’re canceling all these things. That was kind of the moment we realized our season might get canceled, we might not be able to come back.
“There was almost a certain kind of energy like a nervous energy among the club. It was just surreal, we couldn’t believe it. Never in a million years would we have thought something like this could happen.”
Mertes kept working out even though his collegiate baseball career appeared all but over when the NCAA scrapped all spring sports in all divisions. On March 20, he learned there would be a next year: the NCAA granted an extra year to Division II athletes. Division I spring athletes were granted an extra year on Monday.
“Props to the NCAA for it,” Mertes said. “I appreciate it as do all the other seniors who get to come back. We love to compete, we love to play. And when you’ve done something for so long it’s just so hard to give it up. When you have the option, there’s no reason to give it up.”
For now, Mertes plans on that sixth season being his final one in baseball. He’s still in school, and by the time the 2021 season ends, he’ll have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice and psychology and a paralegal certificate. Someday he hopes to be a clinical psychologist.
The real world beckons, but so does another baseball season he thought he would never have.
“It’s fun for me,” Mertes said. “I love doing it. And it’s something I’m not just ready to give up.”