College club sports are like intramurals for kids who don’t suck. A good amount of club players could have earned low scholarships but preferred attending a bigger school, often because of finances or proximity or some educational opportunity – and club teams are their outlets to continue playing sports. But the Idaho State club team wasn’t playing, which seems to defeat the whole point of joining a club team.

The virus wiped out Idaho State’s 2020 season and the school wouldn’t allow any club to travel this past spring, leaving the ISU club team in a hiatus. Yet, the Bengals kept practicing. They just didn’t know what for.

“We’ve been practicing and getting better — working on our craft,” said Thomas Anderson, ISU’s club baseball team president. “We have a bunch of dedicated guys.”

It was dedication with little reward. The ISU club team was still rising at 6 a.m. during the winter to go blast balls in the Holt Arena batting cages, still routinely practice three times a week while lifting the other two, and still playing no games.

“It was good to stay in shape and get up,” said Brayden Pieper, who was on the team from 2017-19. “I was the captain the year before (COVID) and saw guys skip out and it just kind of bugged me. So I just didn’t want to be that guy.”

Plus, to the guys like Anderson and Pieper who showed up, baseball is fun. They’re like golfers who waste away hours at the range while rarely ever playing a full 18. The development can sometimes be just as enjoyable as the competition.

Problem is, when guys finally return to the real thing it’s kind of a crap shoot whether rust is evident or they’re improved – which is why this Grays season has been so interesting. Along with Anderson and Pieper, current Grays Ben Ditton, Chans Arce, Kyler Spracklen Braden Horrocks and Austin Losser have been rostered with the ISU club team; and many haven’t played a game since COVID began.

“It shows a lot of promise,” Anderson said. “We have guys on here playing who I knew were good but they’re playing well above my expectations. It’s a joy to see.”

Anderson is hitting over .400 with a Gate-City leading 15 runs knocked in. Ditton holds a team-high .485 batting average with a dozen RBIs and two home runs. Meanwhile Pieper is hitting .326 and has an ERA hovering around four in over 20 innings on the mound.

All the months of running self-orchestrated practices at whatever field or park they could rent that day apparently paid off.

“We kept it light,” Pieper said.

The practices were fun … when the club wasn’t in jeopardy. When COVID hit and students began to either move home or enroll elsewhere, the ISU baseball club was teetering on the point of extinction.

“It’s really scary because you need to have 12 players to be considered a club,” Anderson said. “It’s stressful but it is what it is.”

Anderson lights up when the conversation shifts to baseball, the type of guy who wouldn’t mind if he could wake up in a batting cage every morning. Originally from northeastern Nevada, Anderson played a year at Southwestern Oregon Community College before transferring to Pocatello and finding a spot on the ISU club team.

Since then, he has navigated the club through its period of uncertainty and been about as supportive of Bengal athletics as any ISU student. He and Pieper have been practice players for the ISU women’s basketball team for the last few years and the pair have made a concerted effort to show up at a hodgepodge of school-wide athletic events, while touting the Bengals on social media wherever they can.

“ISU gave us the most money of any club because we did a lot,” Pieper said. “We’d go to all the volleyball games and like every game for their real sports.”

And hopefully when next season rolls around, they can attend their own games again.

“I’ve talked to quite a few kids and hopefully they all come out and we have a good showing,” Anderson said.