Just a day before his team opened SEC play against Georgia — with no fans in attendance — UF pitcher Jack Leftwich was poolside with teammates Jordan Butler and Cal Greenfield. The trio was taking advantage of canceled classes just before they faced off against the No. 3 Bulldogs when they heard the news.
The NCAA announced the cancellation of all spring championships on March 12, including the College World Series, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following the announcement, the team called a meeting where coach Kevin O’Sullivan spoke to players and asked them to clean out their lockers within 30 minutes so the locker room could be disinfected. By this time, the NCAA took the final step and canceled their season.
After the meeting, all UF athletes were sent home and went their separate ways. But before they parted, the record-breaking squad convened one final time. It’s a moment that showed him the impact he left on his teammates.
At the time of this final summit, the NCAA had yet to announce it would be extending eligibility for spring athletes. Underclassmen said their goodbyes to senior teammates and draft-eligible players who may never suit up in orange and blue again.
“I never really thought of myself as a leader or that I made that much of a difference,” Leftwich, a two-year weekend starter, said.
This was before he saw multiple freshmen and underclassmen get visibly emotional saying their goodbyes. Seeing tears run down his teammates’ faces provided a wake-up call to Leftwich and the other upperclassmen like fellow junior pitcher Tommy Mace.
“It kind of showed that Jack and I did our job,” Mace said. “Because if we didn’t do our jobs, those kids wouldn’t have cried or wouldn’t have gotten emotional about us leaving because it would have just been, ‘Yeah, Jack and Tommy, they’re okay.’ But us doing our job, us helping them out, us getting through tough situations, us staying up late at night talking to these guys and making sure everyone’s on the same page pitching...”
The two standouts on the mound are draft-eligible and would have likely been early-round picks in the MLB draft this summer after a normal season. However, MLB has made serious cutbacks in response to the pandemic — including shortening the typical 40-round draft to just five.
Both Mace and Leftwich stated they haven’t decided whether or not to return to Florida in 2021, and recent events have surely impacted the two hurlers as they weigh both options.
Leftwich is surprised the NCAA extended eligibility to all spring athletes and said that the ruling has broadened his horizons.
“I have not thought about that,” Leftwich said when asked where he will be playing next year. “I was glad that they passed that because now it gives me the option….to keep my options open and then figure out what I’ll be doing.”
One of the underclassmen who attended the final gathering was sophomore pitcher Ben Specht, and like the others, he doesn’t know if he’ll ever play with Mace and Leftwich again.
“Jack and Tommy really gathered our young guys and brought them in and helped with bringing them up and showing them the ropes,” he said. “I was one of the guys that was more emotional on the team because, I mean, we’ve gotten so close.”
It’s possible they both pitched their last inning for the Gators, but after a program-record 16-1 start to the season was cut short, it’s going to be hard for either of these pitchers to step away from the mound and say goodbye to the lasting friendships they forged.
It’s something that Leftwich admits he took for granted. Now he finds himself reminiscing about all the little things that COVID-19 snatched away from him.
“You were just excited to go to the field,” Leftwich recalled. “It’s crazy, I was excited to see every at-bat and watch our hitters hit and watch all of our pitchers pitch. We genuinely just cared about each other.”