When the COVID-19 pandemic brought the sports world to a screeching halt last month, Nick Alvarado and Brayden Jensen had some choices to make.
Alvarado, a Grain Valley High School graduate, and Jensen, a former Truman standout, were both pitchers enjoying successful baseball careers at Illinois-Springfield. Both were seniors, and thanks to the NCAA, both have the opportunity to return next year and play their stolen season.
It was a rug-pulled-from-under-the-feet experience for both of them, and they’re both ready to regain their footing.
On different paths.
Alvarado is taking up the NCAA on its offer, but he won’t be returning to Illinois-Springfield. Neither will Jensen, who is forgoing that extra year of eligibility to enter the real world.
Either way, they’re paths neither one envisioned taking so soon.
“It’s definitely been interesting,” Alvarado said. “It’s something I never would have expected, even in your wildest dreams.”
It didn’t seem possible the last time Alvarado and Jensen were together, riding the team bus on a trip to Missouri. As juniors, the right-handers played for a team that came within a game of the NCAA Division II World Series. As they rolled out of Springfield that day, the Prairie Stars were 10-4 and excited about a season that showed even more promise.
Until they reached St. Louis.
“We kind of got some news about other conferences canceling and the whole shutdown, so we ended up turning around and going back to Springfield,” Alvarado said. “And on the way back, everyone’s on Twitter, everyone’s finding out different things, and then the NCAA released their statement that they were canceling all championships.
“You felt the bus just kind of drop. Everybody’s mood went solid.”
Alvarado, who transferred from Illinois State after his freshman year, was off to his best start in his career at Springfield, going 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA in four starts, the 12th best ERA in Division II. He was also coming off a successful season of summer ball with the Eau Claire (Wis.) Express in the prestigious wood-bat Northwood League.
“Things were definitely looking up for me,” Alvarado said. “And with it being my senior year, I was really hoping to kind of make a name for myself and really establish myself in the game. And for it to be kind of torn away like that, it really hit deep.”
Jensen didn’t have a decision in four starts, but he was 13-4 with a 4.28 ERA for his collegiate career. A second-team all-Great Lakes Valley Conference selection as a sophomore, Jensen also had recorded 150 strikeouts over 178 2/3 innings.
“We were one game away from the World Series last year and this team was just as good, maybe even better,” Jensen said. “As a team, we had very high hopes of what we were going to accomplish.”
With those hopes dashed, Alvarado and Jensen had to figure out what came next. Both will graduate next month, Alvarado with a degree in accounting and Jensen in business management with an emphasis in health care administration. Academically neither had a reason for sticking around Springfield.
“UIS doesn’t have my masters program, so I would be going for either a degree I don’t currently want or I would be using a master’s degree that I don’t want,” Jensen said. “It just didn’t really didn’t work out in my plans.”
Alvarado will play next year, but he plans to do so as a graduate transfer at a Division-I school. He’s not sure where yet, but he said he’s gotten some interest. Or he could wind up signing a free-agent contract with a major-league farm team. He’s heard from some of them as well.
“It definitely takes a weight off my shoulders,” Alvarado said. “And I know (getting another season) does for a lot of other seniors, too.”
Jensen could have played another year, too. And while he’s ready to move on, it still pains him that his career didn’t have a more definitive end.
“At the end of most years you have that closure where you got beat,” Jensen said. “It’s still sad, but at least you know you got beat. I didn’t get that closure of that last game.”