By Pete Borello
Carson Gampell’s senior season on the Grinnell College baseball team was off to a better start than he ever expected. The Los Altos native was batting a team-best .593 after eight games and received conference and national recognition for his performance during the first week of March.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t the best stretch of my career – by far,” said Gampell, whose three homers and 13 RBIs also led the Pioneers.
But the first baseman will never know how long that stretch would have lasted. On March 11, Grinnell – a small, private liberal arts college in Iowa – canceled its spring sports season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Jackie Lin/Special to the Town Crier
Carson Gampell keeps his eye on the ball. The Los Altos native led Grinnell College with a .593 batting average this season.
“That was a tough day for all of us,” said Gampell, a graduate of Menlo School, “but it was 100 percent the right decision.”
It overshadowed two pieces of positive news Gampell received that week. A day earlier, he was named the Midwest Conference Player of Week for the first time. And two hours after learning that not only was the season canceled but all classes would go online, he was honored by D3baseball.com. The website, which covers NCAA Division III baseball, selected him as the first baseman on its Team of the Week.
“It was a wave of emotions,” Gampell said of his roller coaster of a week. “Bittersweet is the best way to put it. It was great to get the league and DIII honors, but it also may have been the last time I play baseball competitively.”
If it was, Gampell went out with a bang. He went 4-for-4 with two homers and five RBIs in the Pioneers’ March 8 finale, a 14-11 win at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
“That was one of the best offensive games of my life,” Gampell said. “I don’t think I had ever hit two homers in a game before.”
The effort capped a stellar series for Gampell, who batted a sizzling .769 over the four games.
“That last weekend was the best of my life,” he said. “I was confident at the plate – and the ball looked so big – and I just tried to stay locked in.”
Along with his impressive batting stats (10-for-13 with three homers, a double and eight RBIs), Gampell was flawless from the field (no errors among his 19 chances) in the series.
But more importantly for the two-time team captain, the Pioneers won three of the games to improve to 5-3.
“We were playing well, battled back and showed grit,” Gampell said. “We have never made it to the DIII tournament – the conference tournament winner goes – and we were thinking we could do that this year. We were looking forward to that.”
As was Grinnell head coach Tim Hollibaugh, also excited by the way Gampell and company were playing as they headed into their conference slate.
“He is just a tremendous person that we will all miss, along with his eight other senior teammates,” Hollibaugh, said. “You can’t replace experience in athletics, and this group was special.”
Last year wasn’t so special for Gampell, though, as injuries limited him to just 11 games. He focused on getting stronger in the offseason, and it paid off.
“When you’re strong, you don’t have to do as much at the plate,” Gampell said. “Just put the bat on the ball and let the power do the rest.”
This was the kind of player Hollibaugh always hoped the 6-foot-4 Gampell would turn out to be.
“To see him at full strength truly demonstrated his full potential,” the coach said. “The numbers he was putting up were crazy, and it would have been fun to see this play out with a full year.”
While the pandemic has prompted the NCAA to grant seniors in spring sports another year of eligibility, Gampell said he won’t be back at Grinnell if he decides to play again. On track to graduate with a double major in economics and math, Gampell plans to attend grad school in the fall (Grinnell does not have a graduate program).
“It would be awesome to play another year somewhere, but I’m not banking on it,” he said. “The door’s slightly ajar – it’s not slammed shut.”
If that door does shut, Gampell’s last season will be one he will remember for closing too soon.
“To get it taken away like that was really tough,” he said. “For me, the biggest thing was not knowing that stepping off the field that Sunday was going to be it.”