Mazama softball coach Todd Nickerson admits that when he launched the virtual Viking Softball School in the early days of the coronavirus shutdown in March, that is was fueled – in large part – by his competitive streak.
“At the beginning, it was kind of selfish,” Nickerson said. “I was hoping that maybe we'd come back and play, and I wanted us to maybe come back and have a leg up on our competition. But after that, it evolved to something even better.”
Nickerson created a curriculum of sorts for his players and awarded points for completing tasks, which ranged from softball workouts to gestures of kindness to written takeaways from books, movies and inspirational lectures.
“We were looking for something for our kids to keep them engaged,” said Nickerson, who took a cue from a similar program run by South Salem baseball.
Of the 27 players on Mazama's JV and varsity teams, 22 participated in the virtual program to some degree. To earn a varsity letter, a player needed to collect at least 300 points.
“The kids were really into it,” Nickerson said. “I think they really appreciated the fact that they got to see each other doing things, and staying in contact with their coaches. I got several emails from parents thanking us for giving their kids something to do.”
Players earned points for running, push-ups and sit-ups as well as for softball-specific workouts, which started at 10 minutes of throwing and 50 swings each day and increased to 15 minutes of throwing and 75 swings.
They gave their takeaways on a video about leadership by Brian Cain, a mental conditioning coach, and on a TED talk by Angela Lee Duckworth titled, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.”
The list included books “The Inner Game of Tennis” by W. Timothy Gallwey and “Heads-Up Baseball” by Dr. Ken Ravizza and Dr. Tom Hanson, and movies “Hoosiers,” “Rudy” and “Moneyball.”
“We tried to do lots of stuff that wasn't just softball related,” Nickerson said. “I think the kids got way more out of that than had it just been something to keep them in shape while they were in quarantine.”
Junior Raine Wilcox told the Klamath Falls Herald and News: “Mazama’s softball program isn’t only about playing softball. It’s about learning how to be a team player, being accountable, and learning how to be a better person off the field. As Coach Nickerson always tells us, ‘If all I teach you is how to run bases and do a bunt coverage, I’ve done my job wrong.’”
Nickerson also solicited written responses to questions such as “How is quarantine a blessing in disguise?” Many players expressed how they appreciated spending more time with their families.
Nickerson, who teaches social studies at the high school, encouraged players to do gestures of kindness. Some wrote letters of gratitude to teachers. One player weeded the garden of an elderly couple that lives next door.
“A lot of times teenagers get a bad rap of being only really concerned about themselves,” Nickerson said.
Players reaching the 150-point mark received a hand-crafted keychain from Nickerson's wife, Laura. Ten players hit that plateau, but once online school began, participation dropped off and only seven players got to 300 points to earn a varsity letter. Nickerson regretted that some seniors fell short.
“Quite honestly, it was kind of arbitrary,” he said of the points system. “In hindsight, I wish I had thought more about it than I did. The points were there to give them goals to shoot for.”
The coach said the program helped the team build some chemistry in what could have been a lost season. The virtual school even allowed them to maintain one of their traditions, Spirit Days, when they dress in quirky clothes for road trips and take a team picture for their Facebook page.
“This was a way for us to give them a little bit of normalcy in times that are anything but normal,” Nickerson said. “The thing I really liked about it is it wasn't just varsity kids that got into it, it was a lot of the younger kids.”
Nickerson, the team's coach since 2002, said he will incorporate elements of the virtual school into the program for future seasons.
“It'll definitely be a year we'll never forget,” Nickerson said. “It'll one of those that stands out at the end of my career.”