The job had gone pretty smoothly for Gregg Braun during his first season as Joliet Junior College’s athletic director, after taking over for Wayne King Jr.
King Jr. retired last spring after being the JJC athletic director since 1996 and winning 1,127 games and three National Junior College Athletic Association Division III national titles in
33 years as baseball coach.
After working with King in the baseball program for the past 12 years, Braun was looking forward to his first season as head coach with 12 players returning.
The season started well as JJC got off to a 4-1 start in late February and early March at home before going on a trip down south, where JJC play nine games, including eight in Texas, from March 7 to 12.
But after they returned from their trip and were preparing to start another home series last week, the Wolves learned that the NJCAA canceled all spring sports because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Braun had to send texts to his players to tell them the bad news.
“The weather cooperated for us, and we got five games in at home before we even left for our trip,” Braun said. “We went to Texas with guys who already had 13 or 14 at-bats, which was great. We were really excited about this year’s team, and there was a lot of positivity.
“When we got to Texas, in our first game there we played the No. 1 team in the country [Tyler] and battled back a couple of times and beat them in extra innings. That was something as a program that we could build on, and we played them good on a couple of those days. The last game we played was against the No. 3 team in the country, Brookhaven, and we lost in extras, but it was one of those game where we learned from it.”
Like many other coaches and administrators in his position, seeing a promising season end in such an abrupt fashion was disappointing.
“It was the right decision, and it was what we had to do, but it was heartbreaking,” Braun said. “My heart broke last Monday when I got the email from the national office saying that all competition was canceled. The hardest thing out of all of this is I hadn’t been able to look my guys in the eyes and tell them. When we got off the bus, I told them that we’d keep our fingers crossed and see what happens, and then unfortunately they get a text message from me.
“It was hard on my guys, and now some of them have to make decisions since they will have the option to come back and play. And what some people might not grasp is the trickle down effect. I do have sophomores that have signed and committed to play at four-year schools, but now they’re looking at it as possibly whoever they were going to replace is coming back, which then puts them in a tough situation.”
Braun was appreciative of the fact that a lot of his players want to return for the 2021 season, while others would be moving on to situations that featured uncertainties.
“It’s kind of a tribute that I’ve got texts from some of my players that have said they want to finish what we’ve started here at JJC, and I love that,” Braun said. “But there are times where you have to look at what’s best for the student-athlete. I want them all back since I was excited about this team, but sometimes you’ve got to let the guys fly on their own.
“I already have about six or seven high school seniors who have committed. But we have to do what’s best for each player, and I’ll take the time to meet with them individually when we get that opportunity.”
Like so many others who are involved in college athletics Braun is unclear as to what the future holds for some of this year’s players who saw their seasons end early.
“Right now our priority at JJC is that we start online classes on Monday, March 30,” Braun said. “So we need to make sure that our student- athletes are motivated and have the thought processes that they still have to complete this semester, and it’s important. And it’s a whole new process since everything’s online.
“As an athletic director, it’s bad for all of our athletes since they can’t get into the Event Center and can’t work out as a team in the offseason, and that’s tough. But everyone is going through it, and we’re all in the same boat.”