As he waits out these days of the coronavirus stay-at-home order in Grain Valley, Zack Ehlen isn’t dwelling on what could have been.
This was supposed to be Ehlen’s senior year at Central Missouri, the year when the speedy outfielder proved his worth with the Mules. The year when he would start seeing the playing time he enjoyed at Grain Valley High School and two successful years at State Fair Community College.
A year that wasn’t supposed to end with only four appearances in 23 games.
“I was hoping to get some more opportunities, but nobody predicted this,” Ehlen said. “Nothing can change it now, I guess.”
And even if he won’t dwell on it, Ehlen still has to think about what happened during his abbreviated season as he plans for his future. Should he return to UCM, where his playing time could still be limited? Or should he head somewhere with a program in physical therapy – which Ehlen wants to study and UCM doesn’t offer – and possibly put baseball aside altogether?
“I know wherever I go I want to go to physical therapy school,” Ehlen said. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure Central Missouri will be where I’ll go back to because of the PT stuff I’m getting into.”
Returning would be tempting, and Ehlen could if he wanted since the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to spring sports seniors caught up in the COVID-19 pandemic. It would offer another chance to play for an NCAA Division II powerhouse, another chance to crack the Mules’ incredibly deep and talented lineup.
He didn’t get much of a chance his junior year, even after hitting .350 as a freshman and .299 with 34 stolen bases as a sophomore in Sedalia at State Fair. Ehlen played just 11 games his first year at UCM, five as a starter, with two hits and nine runs in 11 at-bats.
“I didn’t realize how deep they were committing there,” Ehlen said. “I just had to be the best teammate I could be and cheer them on and just do my part and play my role, whatever that may be.”
That role continued as Ehlen’s senior year began. He played four times in 23 games, getting one hit in five at-bats. He went 0-for-2 pinch-hitting in the second game of a doubleheader sweep March 12 at Fort Hays State.
The Mules, off to a 20-3 start, didn’t play again.
“The coach had a meeting at home plate before the second game started,” Ehlen said. “He said, ‘Guys, I don’t know what’s going to happen but basketball shut down, baseball programs are shutting down right now. We’re going to play this game, but to be honest with you, this may be the last game of the season.’ It happened that quickly.”
Ehlen quickly found himself back in Grain Valley. He’s working out with a friend who has a home gym, in case baseball remains in his future. He wants it to, but studying physical therapy has to come first.
Walking away from the game, or another chance at UCM, won’t be easy.
“I don’t think it would necessarily hit me until I start somewhere else and I’m not immediately going to practice after class,” Ehlen said. “It’s a hard pill to swallow for sure, but everyone has to move on I guess.”