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The Echo
Taylor University, Upland, IN
Monday, May 20, 2024
The Echo
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Arizona J-term trip cherished by Taylor baseball, softball

Team bonding make it an annual tradition

Taylor baseball and softball have hit a home run by beginning their respective seasons in Arizona. Since 2020, the two Trojan squads have taken their talents down southwest for the final two weeks of J-term, and the warm weather is only one of many reasons it has become a staple destination in their schedules.

Road trips are not uncommon for college baseball and softball. Both teams recently competed in Georgia as a part of their non-conference schedule in February. However, traveling to Arizona is distinct in the amount of time spent there, practice capabilities and missional opportunities.

Justin Barber, assistant coach of Taylor baseball, said both programs immediately fell in love with Arizona, and each year he looks forward to the chance to develop closer relationships with his players.

“The team dynamics every year are one thing heading into that trip, and they come out something different just because you’re just so immersed,” Barber said. “You’re doing life together and you’re playing baseball together.”

During the two-week stay, each team rents houses where they engage in various bonding activities, with a focus on devotionals and corporate reading of the Bible. Because their games are scheduled for the second week, the first allows for volunteering at nonprofit organizations, including Phoenix Dream Center, and engaging in activities around the area.

TJ Bass, fifth-year senior and center fielder, said he was able to attend a Phoenix Suns basketball game this past year and enjoyed finding new hiking spots each of the four times he went on the J-term trip.

This past fall, Bass — an elementary education major — said he was busy student teaching and not as involved with his teammates as in previous years, especially with a young roster that includes 11 freshmen.

“Having that time of just playing baseball, focusing on everything outside of school, getting to talk to them, getting to know them … it’s something that absolutely stands out, and it’s something I’ll forever be grateful for,” Bass said. “The alumni who are donating — it wouldn’t be possible without them, and I think it’s been an awesome journey.

The softball team also possesses 11 freshmen. Emma West, senior shortstop and outfielder, pointed out one aspect of their team bonding that goes beyond the surface level: the sharing of testimonies in Christ.

“Getting to hear everybody’s story … it allows you to know them deeper, which then allows you to love them deeper, and on the field, obviously that helps immensely,” West said.

Besides the major relationship-building moments, West said they prioritize going to Dutch Bros, a coffee chain founded in Oregon, because it is primarily located in the western United States and has a high-energy atmosphere that provides a great opportunity for friendly conversation.

The first three editions of this trip, Taylor softball and baseball were able to schedule games either of the two weeks they were in Arizona. However, this marks the first year that the NAIA set an official competition start date, limiting the number of contests and days Taylor could compete. The Trojans have matched up against some of the same teams over the years, but typically play one or two new teams each passing year.

Despite lacking game time freedom, Barber said their practices are typically longer than at Winterholter Field for baseball or Gudakunst Field for softball because of Arizona’s consistent weather and the fact the players are not balancing full academic demands.

From a competitive standpoint, Barber said the first slate of games provide both teams a good sense of where their strengths and weaknesses can be found.

“We’re going to evaluate what gives us the best chance at least at the moment,” Barber said. “It’s a constant evaluation thing, but it does definitely help give us a marker.”

Donors of this trip come in many shapes and sizes, Taylor alumni and player’s families among those, and they contribute as generously as inclined. While financial aid is evident, games have been well supported by the greater Taylor community through in-person spectating and occasionally additional help.

This year, Bass said that the parents of 2022 Taylor graduate Nick Rusche, a four-year starter at shortstop, drove some of their equipment which could not fit on the plane down to Arizona from their home in Greenfield, Ind. Rusche even booked a flight to see his former team play.

“Just seeing those types of people, the service they have for this program and willingness to do that,” Bass said. “They weren’t even batting an eye about it. They would love to do it.”

After four trips, Arizona and J-term are synonymous with success in the eyes of Taylor softball and baseball alike.