BYU freshman infielder Peyton Cole was looking forward to competing in his first collegiate-level summer baseball league at the conclusion of his first season with the Cougars. The Las Vegas native was lined up to spend his summer in Washington playing for the Walla Walla Sweets of the West Coast League beginning in June.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, not only cut Cole’s inaugural season with BYU short after just 16 games but also forced the Sweets to shut down its summer season as well.
Cole decided to return home to Las Vegas, where he did what he could to stay active and in playing shape, often throwing with his older brother and current Los Angeles Angels pitcher, Taylor Cole. Although Cole enjoyed his time back at home, he seized the opportunity to play competitive baseball again in a new Utah College League when the chance presented itself.
“It’s been super nice being able to get out and play again,” Cole said. “Throughout the whole quarantine I’ve just been hoping things will work out to where I can play. Once we finally started playing, at first it honestly didn’t even seem real.”
Cole is one of 150 local baseball players participating in the new Utah College League, which began on July 1 and runs through mid-August. Salt Lake Community College is hosting the six-team league, with the majority of players coming from BYU, Utah Valley, the University of Utah, Dixie State and SLCC.
Like Cole, most of the players had plans to compete in other summer leagues throughout the country prior to the pandemic. Once these leagues started to shut their seasons down, local college coaches got together and began to discuss possible alternatives, eventually coming up with the Utah College League.
Six temporary coaches with ties to the state were selected to manage each of the league’s six teams. Former Pleasant Grove High School standout Peyton Henry, now in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, is coaching “Team Henry,” which includes Cole and his fellow Cougars Brock Watkins, Hunter Swapp, Carter Smith and Bryce Robison. Former BYU star Jackson Cluff, selected by the Washington Nationals in last year’s MLB Draft, coaches “Team Cluff,” which includes Cougars Mitch McIntyre, Hayden Leathman, Reid McLaughlin, Easton Walker and Drew Zimmerman.
“It’s been awesome being around Jackson again and watching him coach,” Cluff’s former BYU teammate and soon-to-be senior pitcher Zimmerman said. “He knows baseball. He knows what he’s doing so he’s definitely the right guy for the job.”
Like other sports leagues that have slowly returned to play amid the pandemic, the Utah College League is taking a number of precautions to ensure the players’ and coaches’ health and safety. Players are required to wear masks while in the dugout areas that are regularly cleaned and sterilized. Fans are also limited to watching from the outfield of SLCC’s Gate Field as long as they maintain social distancing.
Although such precautions may be a strange adjustment, players are willing to do whatever they have to in order to return to the field.
“It’s different,” Zimmerman said about the precautions. “But we’re still playing baseball, which is more than what we’ve been able to do over the last few months and is what all of us want to be doing. At the end of the day, we get to play some baseball.”
Cole acknowledged the new league has not only allowed players to return to the sport they love but that it’s also allowed him and his BYU teammates to strengthen their chemistry, something that might not have been possible had the pandemic not forced other summer leagues across the country to shut down.
“I feel like we’re all getting closer playing in this league than we were before,” Cole said. “Just being able to play together again is huge. Even when we’re playing against each other we’re always around each other which has been a lot of fun.”
Zimmerman, who wasn’t originally planning on competing in any summer leagues prior to the pandemic, agreed with Cole.
“It’s been awesome,” Zimmerman said. “I haven’t been doing much besides working since the season first got shut down, so it’s been super fun having something like this to look forward to and getting back out on the field with the guys.”