‘These kids want to ball’: Youth sports organizations grapple with tough decisions regarding COVID-19 safety
Little League has been around since 1939, but it’s never endured a season like this one.
In a normal year, one in which a global pandemic hasn’t led to over 100,000 deaths in this country and incalculable economic damage, Little Leagues would be nearing the end of the regular season. In every corner of the United States, teams would be battling it out to earn a spot in their respective district’s Tournament of Champions. All-Star tournaments would then follow in late June with talented youngsters looking to win their way through district, area and regional tourneys in the hope of earning a spot at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
That won’t be the case this year.
Young ball players were stripped of their opportunity to play America’s favorite pastime on diamonds near and far this spring as Little Leagues across the world halted play due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Little League International announced the cancellation of its annual World Series Tournament for the first time ever on April 30, but is allowing individual leagues to determine their own path back to the field.
“As certain states and municipalities begin their phased approaches to reopening, it is highly encouraged that each league and district adheres to the guidelines set forth by their respective state and local government and health officials in terms of public gatherings, organized youth sports, and sporting events when determining when it is safe to return to Little League activities,” a statement on Little League International’s website reads.
Local youth sports organizations such as Nevada City Little League, Grass Valley Little League, Penn Valley Little League, Sierra Foothills Little League and Nevada County Girls Softball Association all postponed their seasons when the pandemic first hit, but have since canceled them outright and begun the process of refunding registration fees.
“We didn’t have facilities to use,” said Nevada City Little League President Josh Van Matre. “Schools were shut down so we couldn’t use them for practices and Pioneer Park was shut down so we couldn’t use it for practices … Until they lift the ban on large gatherings, we can’t play.”
Van Matre said the board thought it best to cancel the spring season, fully refund registration fees and, if things change regarding county guidelines on large gatherings over the summer, be ready to offer a “fall ball” season.
“Obviously, I’d love to get back out there and play, and I know my kids and all the other kids do, too,” said Van Matre, who also coaches a pair of teams. “But, I’m not going to do anything that’s going to put anybody in jeopardy.”
‘IN A HOLDING PATTERN’
There is one area Little League still holding out hope a season is still to be had.
Bear River Little League has postponed its season, but is planning to resume as soon as they get the green light from county officials.
“We are in a holding pattern,” said Bear River Little League President Jenn Lukenbill. “We haven’t canceled our season and we don’t plan to, but we can’t get started until we get the OK to do so. So, we’re just holding out.”
Lukenbill added that her league is offering refunds for those who want them. She also noted there are still lots of questions regarding social distancing at the fields, amount of spectators allowed, umpire positioning and how to minimize common use equipment that must be answered before they are able to return.
“We’re going to wait and see what the county will want us to do,” Lukenbill said. “We will adjust as needed so we can get the kids back on the field.”
Lukenbill said once they get the “OK” from the county, they will then evaluate how many players they have, how many other Placer and Sacramento area Little Leagues are fielding teams and develop a schedule from there.
Some league officials are looking forward to their “fall ball” seasons and hoping they will see an uptick in registration due to the absence of a spring season, but noted those numbers will be unknown until decisions are made regarding a safe return of their own sport as well as the standing of other fall youth sports like football and soccer.
“(Fall ball season) is very questionable right now,” said Nevada County Girls Softball Association President Matt Halvorson, noting there is still much uncertainty from league to league and county to county currently.
Over at Sierra Nevada Elite, a Grass Valley baseball academy which boasts several travel ball teams, Head of Baseball Operations Justin Deme said he wants to get started soon and expects an influx of players.
“I expect to have a pretty good (number of players) for summer and fall because Little League didn’t happen, most leagues have canceled for the year, and these kids want to ball,” he said. “When the parents give the OK, they will be out there.”
Deme said he’s spent the past few weeks sanitizing the Sierra Nevada Elite facility and developing processes for a safe return. He said he’d like to start holding small group practices by next week.
“I’ve talked to north of 30 parents and only two have expressed concern, but none have said their kid won’t play,” said Deme, who expects to field six to eight teams in the fall. “Basically whenever the parents say they’re ready to do this, that’s my key. They know what is best for their kids.”
HOPING TO DIVE BACK IN
Northern Sierra Swimming, a competitive swim program based in Nevada County, is looking to get back in the pool soon and has submitted a “Return to Pool Plan” to the Nevada County Health Department, Nevada Joint Union High School District, Grass Valley and Bear River Rec and Parks.
Northern Sierra Swimming uses pools at Bear River High School, Nevada Union High School and Memorial Park in Grass Valley. The Return to Pool Plan outlines several procedures coaches would take to ensure athlete safety and facility cleanliness.
“Sports are so important and these kids are itching to get back in the pool,” Northern Sierra Swimming coach Daryn Glasgow said. “But, it has given us an opportunity to work on mental and physical training that will make them better. That’s been a positive.”
Glasgow said when the sport is allowed to resume it will look quite different and believes virtual meets, in which swimmers compete at their team facilities and their times are then uploaded to a meet database, will be the preferred method in the coming months.
Gold Country Soccer, which boasts around 1,300 participants each year, is still planning to start its fall season normally and registration is currently open.
The league usually starts practices in early August with games starting later in the month.
“It’s difficult to predict comfort levels of players and parents, and it’s still unknown what the environment will look like in three months,” said Gold Country Soccer board member Summer Bookout. “That’s a long time out to know how things are going to be, that’s why we’re planning with everything as normal with the hopes for a regular fall season.”
Bookout added that the league follows guidelines from the county as well as the sport’s governing bodies.
The Nevada Union Junior Miners football and cheer program is also going forward as normal, for now, with the hope their season will be unmarred by the pandemic.
“We’re anticipating that we will have a season,” said Junior Miners President Sarah Hooper. “We’re just waiting to hear what that will look like and if we can start on time. But, with everything we’re hearing, we are anticipating a normal season. We’ve opened up registration and basically waiting to see what the state says and CIF says as far as start dates.”
The California Interscholastic Federation is the governing body for high school sports in the state. The CIF has not yet made a decision on a possible postponement or cancellation of fall high school sports.
“We’re planning for the best and keeping our fingers crossed,” said Hooper.
To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4232.
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Following the addition of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to the U.S. vaccine rollout — joining two-dose vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna — local health officials have encouraged residents to take whichever of the three first becomes available to them.