Facing Adversity As A Family

The 10 Cobber seniors have faced more adversity in their four years than most programs have in their entire history but the struggles have brought them together as a family.
The 10 Cobber seniors have faced more adversity in their four years than most programs have in their entire history but the struggles have brought them together as a family.

Feature written by Concordia sports information student assistant David Youngs

MOORHEAD, Minn (3/28/20)--The Cobber baseball team sat in silence in a dimly lit lecture hall in Olin Center, one of the few classrooms on campus large enough to fit the 40-plus squad. 

It was mid-March; a time of the year where the snow begins to melt and outdoor baseball is on the horizon.

But on that Friday afternoon there was none of the feeling of anxiousness for a new season to begin. What should've been a time of excitement and joy was instead one of sorrow and somberness.

That was the exact time and place that the players were told that the Minnesota Intercollegiate Conference (MIAC) had cancelled its spring athletic season amidst the COVID-19 global pandemic.

The season came to a screeching halt for the Cobbers who had just posted a promising 7-5 mark on their spring break trip to Florida. 

As the team gathered one last time on that gloomy day, the room was filled with emotion. Tears of sadness were followed by laughter and nostalgia as players began to share memories and stories with one another.

"It was a moment when I wished every Cobber baseball alumni was in that room to see the amazing student athletes that we currently have in our baseball program," head coach Chris Coste said. "They'd be so proud to see what goes on behind the scenes of our program."

For the ten seniors on the team it would be their last time together as Cobber baseball players. Their last day in a brotherhood that has brought them through more than most teams will ever experience. 

As the senior class looks back on their four years in the program they are thankful for the brotherhood that has shaped who they are today and the culture that has brought them together as a family. They have lived through adversity, and the struggle that they overcame has formed a special unity and love for one another.   

The word "family" echoes loudly as the Cobbers always breaks down their huddle.

"When other teams break down the huddle they're saying 'win' or whatever, but for us it's family," senior pitcher Austin Ver Steeg said.

The Cobber seniors have been a tight-knit group since they first put on the maroon and gold their freshmen year. The tradition of breaking the huddle with 'family' began their sophomore year after teammate, classmate, and friend Eli Johnson passed away.

"We started that after the death of Eli," Alex Erickson said. "That mentality that we're a family out there and a group of brothers."

Alex, and his brother Brett, were close friends with Johnson throughout their childhood, spending hours upon hours together on, and off, the field. The brothers, alongside fellow seniors Ty Syverson and Tanner McBain, spent four years on the diamond together for the Moorhead Spuds prior to coming to Concordia.

"Me and Al took it really hard, Brett Erickson said. "When you lose someone, it hurts. We were friends for twenty years."

The group of Moorhead alum struggled together through the grief of losing their teammate and friend.

"For us Moorhead guys it was a rocky time in our lives," Syverson said. "We knew that we had to lean on each other especially."

Eric Watt was Johnson's freshman roommate and one of his closest friends.

"When that happened, it was the first time for me that I had anyone pass away that was remotely close to me, so it rocked me," Watt said.

What helped Watt and the rest of the senior class was the support system that the baseball team provided; a group of forty guys willing to listen, talk, and share their emotions.

"There were tons of people who cared immensely about us during that time, but there's truly no one who gets it like your teammates who are going through the exact same thing," Watt said.

It wasn't just those sophomores talking to each other though- it was the whole team supporting each other in a time of tragedy.

"It was seniors coming to us sophomores to talk about it," Watt said. "When you have older guys, who weren't even as close to Eli as we were showing their feelings and emotions, it showed the whole team that it's okay to cry and show emotion."

Baseball was something that brought Eli and his friends together. Even during the grieving process, the sport provided a place for players and friends of Eli to find light in a dark time.

"The fact that you're playing baseball takes your mind off of things," Alex Erickson said. "When you're doing homework it's easy to think about it and get sad, but when you're doing something you love with your closest friends it definitely helped me grieve."

"That time took a lot of leaning on each other, listening, and letting emotions out, "Brett Erickson said. "Just being a good friend to each other. And I think everyone on the team got really good at being a good friend during that time."

The support system that Cobber baseball provided for that class of players following Eli's death was nothing short of incredible. Yet there was nothing surprising about that support system in a program whose culture is unmatched.

"Nothing can match it, it's like a brotherhood." Syverson said.

"You don't have a close personal relationship with five or six guys, you have a personal relationship with darn near 40 guys," Watt said. "I don't think you can say that about many teams out there."

The unity of the team is something that players often feel right away when they are introduced to the program freshman year. Syverson credits that feeling to the leaders on the team when he arrived.

"That senior class right away of Cody Rahman and Joe Hallock and other guys wrapped me in and made me feel like I was a part of the team right away as a freshman," Syverson said.

Experiences like that have paved the way for Syverson, and others, as they have worked their way through the program. That culture isn't just shaped by a few team leaders - but by the entire senior class.

"We didn't really have captains this year, it was all of us who were leading this team and keeping people accountable," Ver Steeg said.

However, that leadership isn't centered around seniority; it's about Cobber baseball players.

"Coach Coste always preaches that with the program there's not seniors, juniors, sophomores, or freshmen, there's just Cobber baseball players," Watt said.

That philosophy came from Coste's time on the Philadelphia Phillies, where he helped the team win a World Series title in 2008.

"When I was with the Phillies no one was a rookie, no one was a veteran, you were a Phillie," Coste said. "Our guys really embraced that and took it to heart."

That mentality doesn't put seniors on a pedestal. Rather it gives them the opportunity to be leaders both on and off the field in different ways.

"If we got off a bus, you'd see Austin Ver Steeg grab the ball bag, you'd see Ty Syverson probably grab the bat bag and he's not even a hitter," Coste said. "That's just the mentality we have with our guys."

Coste says that this year's seniors have done an especially good job making their mark on the program.

This was an amazing group because we had seniors that weren't going to see the field very often, but the important role they played behind the scenes can't even be measured," Coste said. "I honestly can't put into words how awesome they were."

That sense of brotherhood and family was needed when junior pitcher Colin Richards was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma earlier this year.

"You feel terrible for the guy," Ver Steeg said. "Obviously he has cancer, so you feel bad about that, but he had been working so hard preparing for this year, and it's just sad to see that getting taken away from him."

The connection between Ver Steeg and Richards goes back to their days in high school. The two were teammates and friends at Minnewaska Area High School. While it hurts to see his teammate and friend sick, Ver Steeg knows Richards has what it takes to handle the adversity.

He's such a great, uplifting guy. He's so positive all the time, you know he's going to get through it, probably with a smile," Ver Steeg said. "That's hard to imagine for someone with cancer but he's such a positive guy."

Even though this year's season was cut short, the Cobbers missed having Richards on the field with them in Florida.

"He was going to be a huge part of our team," Brett said. "Not only on the baseball side of things but as a teammate. Whatever room Colin is in is better because he's in the room."

Despite not being able to take part in baseball activities, Richards' teammates made sure that he remained an important part of their baseball family.

"I'd go to the hospital and visit him, and there'd always be 5-10 baseball guys in there, Ver Steeg said. "You'd be in there and you'd be sitting on the floor."

And while the senior class won't get a chance to take the field with Richards, they are excited to watch what he does next year as a senior.

"We 100% believe that Colin's going to get through it, he's a tough guy," Watt said. "He's going to get through it and have an incredible senior year."
(Bracelets to support Colin's cancer fight are available to purchase for $2. If interested, please email Austin Ver Steeg: averste1@cord.edu)

No one deserves the chance to go out and play the game they love for one final season more than the Cobber baseball seniors.

Yet life is filled with adversity, and the 2020 season was once again that for the Cobbers.

"I think the biggest thing was that people were disappointed in the loss of memories," senior pitcher Mitch Ziebarth said. "It's not about the at-bats or the innings pitched, people are going to miss the camaraderie, the hotels, the bus rides, the dugout banter. It's those lost experiences and lost memories that people are sad about."

But if anyone will continue to fight, it's the ten seniors whose perspective on life has been shaped by Cobber baseball.

"You've got to grind through it, Brett Erickson said. "We've been through some really tough times. A lot of the times it seemed like the sadness was never going to end. But we got through it and here we are today."

"We've been through so much as a senior class, and we've gotten through it all, we'll get through this one," Ver Steeg added.

While the season ended prematurely there's no doubt that memories were made, and life lessons were learned.

"After games you'd be happy if you won or disappointed if you lost, but at the end of the day you were just glad to be around your team," Ziebarth said. "That was a really good aspect of the culture."

That concept of buying into team culture is something that the seniors will take with them as they prepare to head their separate ways.

"You've got to show appreciation to each and every person on a team," Watt said. "Let people know what they're doing is important and valued, even if it's small."

"Finding ways to help improve the team is an important skill in life, whether that's in the workplace or the family," Ziebarth said. "Being a good teammate is being a good father, being a good son, and being a good employee."

"It makes me breathe easy at night that we've got guys who can love each other, depend on each other, care for each other while trying to achieve something together," Coste said.