Three months of nationwide inactivity in high school athletics came to an end this past week when the first state association-sanctioned athletic contests since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic were held on baseball and softball diamonds across the state of Iowa.
In late May, an announcement from Governor Kim Reynolds gave Iowa high school baseball and softball programs clearance to begin using school facilities to prepare for their signature “summer” seasons. With game schedules that typically run from the beginning of May through the third or fourth week of July, Iowa is the only state that plays its high school baseball and softball campaigns primarily during the summer months.
“It’s exciting to have the opportunity to be the first to play,” said Thornburg Tri-County High School baseball coach Scott Edmundson. “The kids talked about that quite a bit. It was pretty special.”
Reynolds’ order allowed official team practices to start June 1 under guidelines put forth by the Iowa Department of Education (IDE), while June 15 was set as the earliest date for competition sponsored by the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) and the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union (IGHSAU) – the state’s respective governing bodies for high school baseball and softball.
“We are excited to give our young people a chance to get back to an activity they enjoy,” said Tom Keating, IHSAA executive director. “Equally as important, we are pleased that we can help students reconnect with their schools. Students have been physically away from school and away from teachers, classmates, classrooms and activities since April, and baseball has not only provided the players and coaches with the opportunity to reconnect, but also the fans.”
While an additional section of the IDE guidelines provided everyone with a ‘new normal,’ spectators were allowed in attendance last week as more than 500 baseball and softball teams took the field for the first time. Among the unique alterations for participants were mandatory sanitization of shared equipment – balls, bats, helmets, catcher’s gear, etc. – before and after each game, no shared drinking fountains or water coolers and elbow taps, hat-tips or no-contact “air high-fives” as postgame salutations.
“We have to do it,” said Colfax-Mingo High School baseball coach Brian Warrick of the new rules. “The guys joke and laugh about it, about what a pain it is, but they know we have to do it, so we do it.”
“We’re aware of what we have to do to still play the game,” said Trystin Ross, a pitcher for Colfax-Mingo. “It was a relief to just be able to come out and play … it means the world.”
Outside the fences, fans were strongly encouraged to bring their own chairs and were even barred from the bleachers entirely at some ballparks. Pregame messages explained that aiding in the retrieval of foul balls was strictly prohibited and that onlookers from different families should adhere to appropriate social distancing practices. On-site concessions stands were not allowed at any playing facility across the state.
While the opening week was mostly a success, a few Coronavirus cases did surface despite the heightened safety precautions. At least one scheduled baseball and/or softball game was postponed on each of the first five days of competition due to a positive test. At the time of this report, at least seven baseball and softball teams have had to postpone games or have had players or coaches unavailable due to the virus since the start of practices. Four baseball teams – those from Dubuque Wahlert High School, Iowa Falls-Alden High School, Le Mars Gehlen Catholic School and Woodbine High School – and the co-op softball team from George-Little Rock and Central Lyon Community Schools have been forced to suspend their seasons for 14 days.
“Some things are out of our control,” said Pat Norem, athletics director at Iowa Falls-Alden. “We may be one of the early schools impacted by this, but I highly doubt we will be the last.”
The potential spread of the Coronavirus in Iowa presents extremely fluid circumstances for the state’s high school baseball and softball seasons, and the guidelines instituted by the IDE certainly provide a different look and feel to the game environment. However, for the moment, education-based athletics have returned to American soil and have given a select number of student-athletes, parents and school communities the long-awaited opportunity to restore a sense of normalcy.
“Schools are the center of community in so many of our towns,” Keating said. “To see something school-related up and running again has been a big mental boost for all of us.”