For Victoria pro-ball prospect, life's now a waiting game

The boys of summer have been silenced. Or at least reduced to watching the Korean pro league on TV, one of the few baseball leagues operating.

“It’s a weird summer,” said pro prospect Jason Willow of Victoria, echoing the thoughts of many pandemic-bound ball players around the world.

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“Korean ball is very good and getting a lot of love from North American fans.”

So were Willow and his UC-Santa Barbara Gauchos among NCAA fans. The former Canada U-18 World Cup captain was 13-2 with the Gauchos. They were a threat for the College World Series when not only baseball, but the entire sporting world, came to a grinding halt in March.

“It was tough. We had 10 guys selected in the [2019] MLB draft and we had talent,” said Willow.

“We had just beaten UCLA on the road and swept Oregon State and had so much confidence.”

Willow was an all-conference honourable mention in the 2019 season for the Big West Conference champion Gauchos. He is fortunate to the extent that NCAA athletes in cancelled 2020 spring sports will not lose a season of eligibility.

“I had a year left, regardless, but I was concerned for the seniors,” said Willow, who will remain a junior.

“So that was good news for them, especially. We will be able to return with the same roster next season.”

NCAA basketball and hockey players, denied their respective chances at the Final Four and Frozen Four, were not so lucky. Those players will not regain their eligibility for this past season, including former Victoria Grizzlies captain and NCAA hockey rookie of the year Alex Newhook. (The Colorado Avalanche first-round draft pick has committed to play at Boston College for his sophomore season, whatever that might look like in the fall).

Willow, meanwhile, made a shrewd health move once the NCAA baseball season came to an abrupt end. The former Victoria HarbourCats West Coast League standout had a torn labrum in his non-throwing arm and decided to get the surgery done. That gives the Victoria Mariners product the whole summer to rehab.

“There’s been school online, I sent in my final paper this week, and a lot of hanging around back in Victoria,” the Lambrick Park Secondary graduate said about his pandemic routine.

Willow was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2017 MLB draft, but didn’t sign with the Orioles out of Lambrick Park and entered his second draft-eligible year this spring as an NCAA junior. But this year’s draft was drastically reduced to five rounds from the normal 40 due to the pandemic. With his junior eligibility restored, he will get another crack at the draft next spring, although the 2021 MLB draft will only be 20 rounds.

“That’s 25 rounds over two years, down from what would have been 80 rounds total,” said Willow.

“That changes things and definitely makes it tougher.”

It leaves free-agency signing as the best option for aspiring baseball pros in the shadow of the pandemic. Willow could also be just the sort of rising young player that coach Ernie Whitt and Canada will be looking for in Olympic qualifying for the delayed Tokyo Games next summer. Willow can hit, run and is highly versatile defensively and can be plugged into either the outfield or infield.

HarbourCats head coach Todd Haney, who played five seasons in the MLB, saw that potential last summer in the WCL at Wilson’s Group Stadium at Royal Athletic Park. Haney described Willow as “a projectable athlete and player [for pro ball].”

What the fall looks like for NCAA athletes is anybody’s guess. There is informal fall baseball, but the official NCAA season is not until the spring.

“I don’t know about fall ball . . . that’s still up in the air,” Willow said.

“Baseball is not the NCAA priority looking ahead to the fall. The big issue for the fall is football.”

Hopefully, next spring will see the waning days of the pandemic. Whatever it brings, Willow will be ready to continue chasing the dream.

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