A SUMMER SURPRISE: Baseball and softball return as shock to Iowa schools
By BRANDON HURLEY
Iowa has its sports back.
Relative surprise and relief blanketed the athletically-deprived state when Governor Kim Reynolds lifted a number of restrictions on high school sports.
Baseball and softball athletes are allowed to return to the practice field beginning June 1 with a shortened season commencing on June 15.
The Iowa High School Athletic Association and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union jointly approved the return to sports following Governor Reynolds surprising announcement during her daily press conference May 20. She cited the relative obedience and patience from Iowans as to why she chose to bring back a portion of youth athletics, which had been on hold since mid-March.
“I know that many parents and youth athletes are eager to resume summer sports,” Governor Reynolds said last week. “High school athletics was the logical place to start the process of bringing athletics back in season. We are working closely with the athletic association and others to make this possible.
Together with the IDPH, we are working with youth sports associations to develop a plan to bring other sports back for the summer.”
Greene County activities director Todd Gordon wasn’t expecting Reynolds’ newest and bravest decision, a week after she said in a press conference May 13 that she had not talked with Iowa’s high school sports entities about returning to play. Gordon wasn’t alone when the news came last week, as many of his fellow AD colleagues didn’t expect summer sports to even have a chance since the season was originally supposed to begin last week.
“To be 100 percent honest, I didn’t think we’d play,” Gordon said roughly 24 hours after the Governor approved summer sports. “I was surprised. I think there’s a lot of shock in the AD community like we were caught off guard.”
Despite that notion of surprise, many school districts agree they have somewhat of an obligation to help their students achieve some sort of normalcy, albeit with many guidelines and precautions along the way. Gordon believes it’s up to the student-athletes, the coaches and fans to make sure sports return as safely as possible. Whether they admit it or not, the Coronavirus is a dangerous outbreak that should not be taken lightly. The Governor has placed the responsibility in the hands of those who cherish summer sports the most. Gordon is confident the local district can handle the pressure.
“I think it’s kind of been the governor’s motive or the way she’s operated, to trust people to do the right thing,” Gordon said. “I think baseball and softball probably (are) the best thing to try. It’s outdoors. There’s going to be some close proximity at first base with a runner on and this and that, but we can spread our fans out more and we can control the flow of traffic in and out of the ballpark a little bit more. If we all operate in more of a world of grace and cooperation, we’ll be able to do it.”
New Greene County baseball coach Matt Paulsen, a 2013 graduate of Greene County, secured his first head coaching job at his alma matter, of all places, at the age of 25. To say the lead up to first pitch in Jefferson has been a strange one is a bit of an understatement. His debut has been a tad delayed, for obvious reasons. He hasn’t even had the chance to lead his guys out onto the practice field. That’ll all change come June 1.
“It’s not what I expected. (There’s been) a lot of unknown, a lot of communication,” Paulsen said. “I’m pretty lucky my dad (Kevin) is my assistant. Having guidance from a guy like Todd Gordon has been tremendous, too.”
Paulsen was a little taken aback when rumors began swirling about a restart, but he persevered, and remained positive.
“I’ve stayed hopeful through it all, but I was surprised as well,” Paulsen said. “I was excited, and really excited for the seniors, who get a chance to end their high school career with some normalcy.”
Each of the Heart of Iowa Conference’s member schools banded together in a virtual meeting Thursday, May 21 and further approved the baseball and softball season at the local level, setting forth a 14-game regular season. The postseason, as of now, will remain the same as if there wasn’t a suspension, meaning the regular season will last all of four weeks. The baseball state tournament is set to begin at its original date on July 24. The softball postseason begins the week of July 15, same as baseball.
“We adjusted our schedule. We are going to play every conference team twice,” Gordon said. Conference foes will be the only schools on the shortened schedule. “So we’ll play three times a week in June, four times the first week of July and then it’ll get us through basically the four weeks of the regular season.”
Abiding by social distancing guidelines is Gordon’s and Greene County’s top priority. They are focused on keeping the fans and athletes safe, which means the atmosphere at each baseball and softball game in Jefferson will look - and feel - a little different. First, the school will start with seating.
“We’re going to remove our bleachers. We’re going to encourage people to bring their own chairs,” Gordon said. “I’m not sure how all that’s going to look because we’ve got to have extra room. We can use the dugouts for games, but you can’t put 20 people in a dugout. So we’ve got to have space outside of the dugouts for players.”
How all that will look and where exactly fans will sit is something Gordon hasn’t quite planned out, just yet. There’s still a little bit of time before games begin June 15. In the mean time, he envisions fans spread out along the fences, even sprawling around the outfield.
The Department of Education will offer guidance in the coming weeks as to how schools are supposed to operate safely during games and at practice. They’ve already released a set of suggestions that were sent out publicly May 21. Many of the bullet points include how to handle practices (no use of the dugout is allowed), while players and coaches are encouraged to take their temperatures each day before arriving at the field. Dugouts can be used only during games while all shared equipment - including bats, balls and gloves - should be sanitized regularly.
The governor did ease restrictions on groups of 10 or less outdoors Tuesday, May 26, so the number of spectators or players won’t be an issue. But transportation, to and from games, still will be cause for concern, and isn’t something the department of education has figured out just yet, Gordon said. By the book, every school district must provide the necessary transportation, whether by bus or van, to and from games, making it illegal for parents or an individual athlete to drive.
Dr. Ann Lebo, with the Department of Education, hinted at easing that long-standing law in a meeting with Iowa school districts last week.
“She alluded today (May 21) that she thinks it will be permissible for parents to transport kids and other kids (to games),” Gordon said. “If you look at the cost of transporting a baseball team, on our biggest bus, our capacity is 76 to 78. But if you space them out the way you’re supposed to (in regards to social distancing), we could only get 22 people in that bus. You’ve also got coaches and managers (to think of). If you’re taking two or three busses, that adds up pretty quick
Gordon continued, “It may look a little like Little League, but if this is what we have to do to make a season, we have to make that happen.”
There’s also a real possibility that a positive COVID-19, either from a player or a coach, could derail the remainder of the season for a team or two and potentially a whole lot more. Greene County will abide by the CDC’s regulations on how and when to report Coronavirus cases. They’d first contact the Iowa Department of Public Health, notify their most recent opponents, and immediately send their own squad into 14-day isolation, regardless of the impending impact on the season.
“It may shut a team down,” Gordon said. “It could even be an umpire. It’s a real thing that there could be teams who start the season that don't finish the season.”
Despite that, Gordon feels he’s got a crew of coaches in both softball and baseball that are prepared for a season unlike any other. He’ll stay in constant contact with both Paulsen and softball coach Tom Kennedy, urging them to keep an open mind.
“We’ve used (the phrase) new normal,” Gordon said. “If we want to have competitive sports, there’s just going to be certain responsibilities that come with it.”
In a way, teams throughout the state will set their sights on a state title, like each summer before, but they’ll be playing for a lot more this time around. For pride and bravery, for the purest emotion of all - joy.
“(There are going to be teams) that win a championship. But that’s not going to be the end all this year,” Gordon said. “The fact that you get to play and the seniors who play baseball and softball get to put a little bit of a closure on it or put a cap on a season, that’s going to mean a lot to them. I think it’s going to mean a lot more to the class of 2020 than any class ever before.”
The nation is on notice, waiting for guidance on Iowa’s fight back against a fatal virus and the journey to re-open. Thousands of high school athletes have a chance to show the country what Iowa is about. Just ask Greene County senior Nick Breon. The shortstop, who led the Rams in batting a year ago, is ready for the opportunity of a lifetime. No other senior class has gone through such an ordeal. They’ve sat idly by as prom, graduation and sports were all shelved. It’s time to show what knowledge and bravery they’ve gained over the last few months. Hopefully, he says, the state of Iowa and the local Greene County community can use baseball and softball as a coping mechanism.
“That just shows that Iowa is not a bunch of pansies, and we love our sports,” Breon said in a phone interview last week. “It’s just a good feeling that we’ll get to play baseball. Knowing that some people might not have a job or might not have anything to do or maybe their friend’s parents won’t let them go out, but now, they have something to look forward to.
(This is something) I’ll never forget. We have to keep our heads up, and hopefully, we’ll win every frickin’ game. That’s what I’m hoping for.”