Since mid-March, schools across Iowa sat empty and quiet. The tracks, tennis courts and soccer fields were vacant, with maybe a few athletes getting some reps in while hoping Gov. Kim Reynolds would green light the spring sports.
Those hopes were dashed when the governor called off in-person classes April 17 due to the spread of the novel coronavirus that caused a worldwide pandemic. However, there was still an opening for baseball and softball this summer.
One of those who was hopeful was Waverly-Shell Rock senior Payton Leonard. He kept himself prepared for the possible 2020 season by throwing long toss and hitting baseballs into a net off a tee near the Wartburg College Max Cross Country Course.
Meanwhile, over in Shell Rock, junior Alandria Trowbridge and her teammates from the Butler County half of the squad gathered in Shell Rock Park for some drills given by head coach Heather Zajicek.
As the days, weeks and months passed, the case counts kept climbing, and the death toll continued to increase.
But as a long, hot summer with nothing to do loomed on the horizon, a repreve came on May 20.
“Effective June 1, Iowa schools will be permitted to resume school-sponsored activities and learning, according to the appropriate public health precaution,” Reynolds said. “This will include high school baseball and softball activities.”
That means the boys and girls of summer will hit the diamonds across the state next week to prepare for a condensed slate. Leonard, Trowbridge, Zajicek as well as W-SR Activities Director David Litterer and baseball coach Casey Klunder were pleased to learn that they will be helping the state return to a sense of normalcy.
“I think we were a little bit surprised, I guess, even though (Reynolds) had been opening things up as we have gone throughout the course, the last week, within the state of Iowa,” Litterer said. “I really think they felt, because it’s a summertime, outside program, it’s probably a little better fit for the (prevention of) the possible spread of the disease.
“We were kind of expecting more in the following week to know exactly where Iowa stood, as far as where we would go.”
Litterer spoke to Waverly Newspapers prior to meeting with the other ADs from the other six members of the Northeast Iowa Conference Thursday afternoon to reset the baseball and softball schedules.
Leonard is looking forward to finishing his senior year in the right way, after missing the last three months of school.
“When I first heard it, my phone was just blowing up with the guys that are on the team, and how we just can’t wait to get on the field with each other,” Leonard said. “A couple of us have been doing a couple of things, but now, we’ll be able to put it all together as a full team.
“We just can’t wait — I just can’t wait. This entire time, we were just hoping and praying that we would have a season, and it came out now that we’re allowed to. We’re just super-excited. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Trowbridge said the announcement was an exciting moment for her.
“We’ve all been missing each other,” Trowbridge said. “It’s been different for everyone.”
Klunder was most happy for the Go-Hawk seniors when Gov. Reynolds made her announcement.
“It’s just an opportunity to play and to be with their friends again,” Klunder said. “Our seniors have lost so much here since the middle of March, with prom and graduation and saying goodbye to their friends and some of those things.
“The fact that they can go out and do one more activity as a W-SR Go-Hawk means a lot to them.”
Zajicek, like Litterer, was shocked to hear the governor make her announcement on baseball and softball when she did.
“It’s really been an up-and-down roller coaster throughout this whole process of the COVID and knowing whether or not we were going to have a season or not,” Zajicek said. “Honestly, after hearing it and letting it sink in for a little bit, it was pretty exciting that these girls are going to be fortunate enough to be able to play their season, given what’s been going on in the world.”
The Iowa Department of Public Health, Iowa High School Athletic Association and Iowa Girls’ High School Athletic Union, the state’s two governing bodies for interscholastic sports, laid out guidelines to make sure players, coaches, umpires and fans are safe from the highly-infectious disease. During the first two weeks of practice, no one may use either dugout, and the players’ equipment must be lined up against the fence 6 feet apart. The athletes also should use their own equipment — including gloves, bats and helmets — as much as possible and bringing their own hydration containers.
Also, players should be spaced out enough to satisfy social distancing requirements during drills, and coaches are to sanitize shared equipment following each practice. Meanwhile, parents are to remain in their vehicles during practice, or they can simply drop off and pick up their student-athlete before and after each practice. Plus, spitting of sunflower seed shells is banned, and players are encouraged to have their own hand sanitizer and not to participate if they experience any symptoms of any illness.
Games can begin on June 15, and signs must be posted at the ballparks indicating that no one is to attend or participate if they’ve had symptoms or had contact with anyone who had been confirmed to be infected with COVID-19 within the past 14 days. At this point, dugouts can be used during the game.
Before and after each game, coaches are to check their players’ temperatures, and anyone with symptoms are not allowed to play. Coaches are also required to sanitize shared equipment after each contest.
Fans are encouraged to bring their own lawn chairs or stand during the game, as schools are encouraged to limit use of the bleachers. Social distancing guidelines are to be utilized between groups of members of the same household. Also, concession stands are not allowed.
The full list of requirements is available at https://www.iahsaa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Iowa-DE-Guidance-Summer-Sports-5.20.20.pdf.
Litterer, the W-SR AD, said he and the other NEIC administrators are going to try to follow those rules as much as possible. He said after the schedules were reset Thursday, they would have to figure out how to reassign umpires.
“We’re a little worried that not every umpire — we’ve already communicated with some of them — that they don’t want to work this summer, or maybe they do,” he said. “We might pick up some other ones that didn’t plan on getting their license.
“I think we’ll find enough umpires, but that’s been a little bit of our concern, making sure we have enough people to cover all of their duties that go on at the ballgame.”
Trowbridge plays shortstop for the softball squad. As a sophomore, she had a hitting “slash line” of .186 batting average, .213 on-base percentage and .186 slugging percentage with two doubles and three runs batted in. She also fielded at a .788 percentage and stole one base.
She said trying to adjust to the guidelines will make this season different than others.
“If we’re all in this together, we’re going to get through it,” Trowbridge said. “It’s definitely going to be a change.
“I feel like our attitude is going to have to be everything. Going into the season, that’s going to be most important, because we know that we missed a lot of the season, so if we go in with a good attitude, we’re going to get a lot more done.”
Leonard is a pitcher and outfielder for the baseball team. Last year, he was 4-4 in 10 starts on the mound with a 2.58 earned-run average, second-best on the team, with an average of 1.55 walks and hits per inning pitched and a .186 opponents’ batting average. He also slashed .383/.519/.458 with five doubles, two triples and 22 RBIs.
He is looking forward to that final season with his classmates, and he hopes for big things for the Go-Hawks come August.
“My overall goal is to win a state championship,” Leonard said. “We have that season, it’s finally going to happen. That’s my main goal. However, the season ends, at least I got that one last season that I want with my guys.”
Iowa is the only state in the union that plays baseball and softball at the high school level in the summer. Forty-seven other states that offer baseball play in the spring, so those seasons were lost due to the virus, as had a majority of states for softball, except for Colorado, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota, all with fall seasons.
With Iowa having the only interscholastic athletics in the nation, this state’s young athletes will have the spotlight all to themselves. They will be among the few who are actually competing in the U.S. overall, as NASCAR has restarted its season, and the PGA Tour getting back underway the weekend before Iowa ball players take the field.
Zajicek, the W-SR softball coach, said the Hawkeye state is lucky to keep summer baseball and softball alive.
“It is only because we are playing in the summer that we’re fortunate enough to be able to play,” she said. “If we were a spring sport, like those other (states), we wouldn’t have a season, just like, unfortunately, our golfers, our track runners, tennis, soccer, they were unable to have a season, and we’re fortunate that we’ve had that unique schedule of being in the summer.”
Klunder, the baseball manager, said Iowa kids will be under the microscope.
“There’s information out there that we’re becoming the guinea pigs,” he said. “The eyes of the nation are going to be on us here and how we handle this. It’s going to be important that we do a really good job and are mindful of the safety protocols.
“States all across the country are going to be looking at Iowa baseball and softball right now to put a plan in place with how they proceed with fall sports. That’s exciting, but there’s also some pressure that comes with that, that we’re going to have to work really, really hard to follow all of the safety protocols.”