As Ryan Short cooked up some Memorial Day steaks on the grill, he fielded a phone call from a reporter asking about Short’s Normal Community High School baseball team.
The steaks continued to sizzle on their way to rare, medium rare, medium well … whatever the goal was for each. When talk turned NCHS’ run to the outright Big 12 Conference championship, there was only one option.
Short didn’t say the words specifically during a 10-minute conversation. Yet, when you consider the Ironmen had a two-week COVID-19 quarantine in the midst of their season, “well done” makes sense.
NCHS went from April 24 to May 10 without a game because of COVID-19 issues. The first week, only four players were not in quarantine and able to practice. The next week, it was five.
The Ironmen were 3-4 prior to the shutdown. What would they be like when it ended?
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Short said. “We were starting to figure some things out and get to know ourselves a little bit and then we had to take a break.
“Guys took it upon themselves (when coming back) to just take it day by day … try to play better the next day than we did that day. There were days we pitched by committee and threw five or six guys.”
The first game back, a 6-4 win over Galesburg, included seven NCHS pitchers. Short says the Ironmen’s pitching numbers have “really, really improved” from pre-quarantine to post-quarantine, helping turn an uncertain season into something special.
NCHS entered Tuesday’s regular-season finale — a Big 12 home game vs. Peoria Notre Dame — at 17-6 overall and 11-1 in the conference. No other team in the league had fewer than three Big 12 losses.
The Ironmen have shared Big 12 championships in 2008, 2011 and 2017 during Short’s 16-year tenure as head coach. This is the school’s first outright league crown since 2004, when Andy Turner was head coach and Short his assistant.
This year’s determined bunch includes seven seniors: Aaron Carlock, Andrew Briggs, Tyler Petersen, Austin Eichensehr, Ryne Willard, Cole Adams and Mitchell Murphy.
Short said the seniors were “leading when I didn’t know it probably.”
“They had their own group chat or group text messages,” Short said. “I know they were holding each other accountable. I would get a picture now and then of a guy doing something. I think they did a good job of making sure everyone was ready to roll when we were allowed to.”
They are part of a resilient bunch that has a unique distinction.
“We’ve actually had zero practices outside with our whole team,” Short said. “We had a couple in the gym because of rain with our whole team. But between football and quarantine, we just haven’t (practiced outside).”
There may be a chance Wednesday and/or Thursday prior to a Class 4A regional semifinal game Friday at Moline. The Ironmen lost twice at Moline on April 24 (5-4 and 5-0) in their last games before the shutdown.
“We know Moline. We also know that every year Moline is better in the postseason than they were in the regular season,” Short said. “But I think the resiliency part of it is we won’t get off the bus with any sort of fear or trepidation.
“There is no gnashing of teeth with this group. It’s just, ‘Who are we playing today? We’re playing Moline? OK, let’s go give them our best.’”
It is a recipe for winning, even when a pandemic forces you to start, stop and start again.
Short’s steaks cooked on. Soon, they would be done.
It makes sense.
Randy Kindred is a columnist and retired sports editor at The Pantagraph. Follow Randy Kindred on Twitter: pg_kindred