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May 31—Dale Varsho returned to many of his typical Eau Claire Express duties months ago. He’s constructed a roster as he usually does, plucking players from across the country and multiple levels of play to spend their summer at Carson Park.

But building connections and serving as a teacher is what he loves most about his job as manager, and Sunday was the first time he really got a chance to do that since the Express last played two summers ago.

A crew of 18 players, the first crop arriving to play for the team this summer, gathered at Carson Park in the evening to receive their uniforms and meet the three-man coaching staff, featuring Varsho, Vic Cable and Paul Henrichs.

“I’ve talked to them through text messages and maybe some on the phone, but overall it’s all about getting them here and seeing their face,” Varsho said. “There’s times where I don’t have a clue who you are, cause the websites don’t do you justice. … It’s just nice having people back and put the face to the name, socialize that way and hopefully get to know them better.”

It’s a small unit to start, expected considering much of this year’s Express roster is still playing in collegiate postseasons, and it will be put to the test immediately. Eau Claire opens its season at home Monday against the Rochester Honkers at 7:05 p.m., but then heads to the road for three straight games and four of its first six.

“Be efficient,” pitcher Conner Mackay said of navigating the early part of the season. “When you’re lacking players you don’t want to put yourself into harm’s way or put anyone else into harm’s way.”

Mackay will start the opener for the Express. A junior college righty, he had a 1.85 ERA in 43.2 innings of work with Iowa Western Community College this spring. He’s set to be with the team for the entire summer, and Varsho said he has the potential to be drafted in the future. He’s excited to go, having last pitched in a game in March.

“It’s a big honor,” Mackay said of starting Day 1. “There’s a lot of great pitchers on this team. I think we’re all going to get our opportunities, that’s why we’re here this summer, but to open up, it’s a big adrenaline rush. I can’t wait.”

Monday marks a return for the Express after sitting out 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. For the first time in two years Varsho was able to hand out the team’s burnt orange jerseys and help his new players find the correctly-sized hat. Following the equipment dispersal, he gathered the group in the grandstand and detailed what they should expect from the next few months while in Eau Claire and traveling around the Midwest.

Among the topics discussed was the vaccination status of players, which could affect availability over the summer. Those who are vaccinated are much less likely to face a quarantine.

“If something hits with quarantine or something, we need to know who is vaccinated and who is not,” Varsho said. “I am vaccinated. I’ll always be at the game, so that’s huge. But I want to make sure they realize that they are putting themselves in playing jeopardy if they are not vaccinated. I recommend that they do, but if they’re dead against it and not want to do it, that’s up to them too. That’s really their choice.”

For players like pitcher Garret Nicholson, Monday’s game brings about the fulfillment of 2020 plans. He was supposed to suit up for the Express last summer before the team opted to sit the Northwoods slate out, so he had to get creative to stay in shape for his next season at Minot State.

“Luckily I had a friend that would work out with me so I was able to throw my bullpens,” Nicholson said. “Besides that I landscaped all summer. Landscaping was fun, hot days, but I really enjoyed it.”

He’ll follow a more traditional baseball workout this summer, one of many returning to some semblance of normalcy.

“I think the beauty is just to play,” Varsho said. “It’s about playing baseball. It not about winning and losing right now, it’s about being out here and getting back to normal.”