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It’s no mystery last spring was a frustrating time for college and high school athletes throughout the country as the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation of their seasons.

It was an especially bitter pill to swallow for those high school athletes who were counting on a productive senior season to garner more interest from college coaches. Such was definitely the case for former Mountain Crest baseball and football teammates Ethan Wilson and Tadon Burbank.

Wilson, who transferred to Logan High for his final academic year, and Burbank all of a sudden had fewer chances to play baseball at the collegiate level than they would have in a typical year. Those opportunities were even more difficult to find after the NCAA and NJCAA provided an extra year of eligibility for all spring of 2020 athletes.

This decision by the NJCAA made it possible for second-year sophomores to return the following spring, but it also meant fewer partial scholarships would be available for incoming freshmen. As a result, Burbank and Wilson ended up walking on at USU Eastern.

“Yeah, a lot of the guys came back from the previous year, so there wasn’t a lot of (scholarship) money (USU Eastern head coach Kirk Haney) could offer,” Wilson said. “But he said, ‘hey, you’re more than welcome to come and walk on,’ and I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ I went and tried it out and had a good experience. It was a great opportunity that I had.”

Burbank, who was the Region 11 co-MVP and a second-team all-state selection as a junior, echoed Wilson’s sentiments.

“It was very difficult just because kids in my senior class didn’t even play varsity until their junior year, and so a lot of the kids really only had one year to get recruited by colleges and to talk to colleges,” Burbank said. “And then our senior year came around and I was hoping that, that would do a lot more for me and I would get a lot more looks, but then COVID came around. And I was kind of hard because then the year of eligibility came back for the other college players, so then it was super hard to even get an opportunity to go and play on a college team and be a part of that experience.

“But it was super helpful that the (USU Eastern) coach was good about it and gave me and Ethan a chance, and we went down and did it and it was a good experience.”

Burbank and Wilson were able to make the most out of a challenging situation. For starters, both were able to earn a spot on the final roster, which definitely wasn’t a given heading into fall camp. The Golden Eagles brought in 45 players for fall ball and trimmed it down to 28 for the final spring of 2021 roster. Of those 28 players, 24 traveled to away games, and Wilson and Burbank were among those athletes.

How confident was Burbank he was going to make the final cut?

“I mean, it was pretty difficult,” he said. “So Eastern in the past has kind of struggled with ... being successful, but this past year our team had good players, we had a lot of successful kids on the team, so I knew it would be a challenge for sure because, you know, not everyone gets to go play college baseball unless they’re good enough. So I knew the players were going to be good and I was going to have to work hard.”

Indeed, the Golden Eagles had seemingly turned a corner last spring before COVID-19 halted everything. USU Eastern won 11 of 20 games a year ago, which was very encouraging for a program that went 71-177 from 2015-19.

The Golden Eagles welcomed back a veteran squad this past spring and went a respectable 24-32 against some quality competition. USU Eastern competes in the same conference as well-respected JUCO programs Southern Nevada, Salt Lake Community College and the College of Southern Idaho. Southern Nevada consistently produces MLB Draft picks and was the initial landing spot out of high school for current Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper. All of these aforementioned teams are Division I programs and there are three divisions for baseball within the junior college ranks.

Being able to share this experience with a good friend was something Wilson relished. The duo started on a Mountain Crest team that captured the region championship in 2019, plus they grew up playing together. Ironically enough, both athletes also started at quarterback for their respective high school football teams as seniors.

“Yeah, it was good to play with my old teammate,” Wilson said. “I love the guy, he’s a good guy. It was a good time because he’s a catcher and I’m a pitcher, so we bonded a lot.”

“Yeah, it was super good because me and Ethan, we played on the same super league team as kids growing up,” Burbank said. “We played on the Cache Valley Titans and Todd Wilson helped coach that too, so it was good just playing with Ethan my sophomore and junior year in baseball and football too. And then getting to go down and play college baseball with him as well was really fun.”

Both athletes saw limited playing time for the Golden Eagles this past season.

Burbank appeared in seven games and made one start. The Wellsville native doubled, singled, walked four times and drove in four runs in his 10 plate appearances. No. 10 also posted a 7.50 ERA in his six innings on the mound. Burbank allowed seven hits, struck out eight and walked three.

Wilson appeared twice as a relief pitcher for USU Eastern. The Millville native didn’t allow any runs in his two- and two-thirds innings on the bump. No. 16 gave up two base knocks, fanned one and walked another.

“It was a very good experience for me and I’d like to thank my coach for believing in me and giving me a chance, even though I didn’t really get a senior year,” Wilson said. “But he believed in me, so it was good to get down there, play some baseball and it was a lot of fun.”

Wilson and Burbank have both fared well this summer while playing on rival teams in the Northern Utah League.

In 21 games for the league-leading Hyrum Hornets, Burbank has racked up 16 extra-base hits, including 13 doubles. Burbank, who plays with older brothers Jase and Jaxon, batted for the cycle — meaning he homered, tripled, doubled and singled in the same game — in a 13-4 victory over the Utah Peaches on June 22.

Wilson has posted an impressive 1.528 ERA in 17.2 innings of work for the Smithfield Blue Sox, who are currently in second place in the NUL standings. In his last two outings — against the Peaches and Gate City Grays — Wilson was especially sharp as he gave up zero runs on two hits in nine complete frames. The southpaw was one out away from a five-inning no-hitter in the Blue Sox’s 11-0 triumph over the Peaches on July 1.

Burbank and Wilson have both been invited back for another academic year at USU Eastern. It’s an invitation Burbank has accepted, while Wilson is currently weighing his options. Wilson has multiple offers from smaller four-year college programs, including three in the Phoenix area that get to play their home games at MLB spring training facilities.

“It feels good to be believed in by coaches,” Wilson said. “Obviously, they run the program and they believe in you, believe that you can play and compete, so it’s a good feeling to get offers.”

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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