Prep Sports

Excitement, but wariness as Iowa brings back high school baseball, softball

Older coaches are especially attuned to potential risks

North Linn head Lynx coach Marv Porter talks to his players during the second inning of their class 2A championship game
North Linn head Lynx coach Marv Porter talks to his players during the second inning of their class 2A championship game against the Alta-Aurelia Warriors at the 2019 Iowa Girls' High School State Softball Championships at Rogers Sports Complex in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Thursday, July 25, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — This is it for Marv Porter. His final season as a high school softball coach.

It’s been a great ride, 40-plus years of fun. He’s got a team at North Linn that won a state championship last season and could very well repeat.

In a perfect world, he’d be able to sit back and savor every second of this last ride with zero worries.

Porter will enjoy it, make no mistake, but he’ll also always have something in the back of his mind. Every second he’s on the field.

At 76 years old, he’s in the high-risk category when it comes to potential for severe illness if he were to contract COVID-19. That weighs on him.

“Well, I’m really looking forward to it,” he said of a season that began Monday with first practices. “But, on the other hand, it’s kind of scary. I’ve been kind of isolated by myself out here in the country and haven’t had any problems. But you start hanging around people all the time, you never know who’s carrying it.

“My objective this summer is just to stay away from people. Six feet, more than 6 feet.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The Iowa High School Athletic Association and Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union voted unanimously in late May to allow schools to conduct baseball and softball seasons, respectively, after Gov. Kim Reynolds gave her OK. All but two (Eagle Grove and Belmond-Klemme) have decided to field teams.

Games begin June 15. This is a feel-good situation, everyone is excited.

And some, especially older coaches, are wary.

“In all honesty, I think you have to be concerned. I am concerned,” said Lisbon softball coach Bob Bunting. “I don’t want to get it. I enjoy coaching. I think being outside and being involved, where you’ve got air and space ... I’ve got things pretty well set up to keep kids spaced out and for me to keep away from them.

“I just hope our kids stay healthy.”

Bunting, 75, and Porter discussed their feelings on all this recently. When asked if they seriously considered not coaching this season because of the personal risk involved, both said no.

They were in.

“I tell you what, if I was coaching basketball or something inside right now, then, no, I wouldn’t do it,” said Bunting, in his 51st season at Lisbon. “But being outside is different, I think. And you can’t run scared all the time. So we just kind of watch what we do.”

“I committed to do it this year, and that was the way it was going to be,” Porter said. “You just have to use a lot of common sense. You can’t be stupid about these things because, hey, that guy over there died for some reason. This is a real thing ... It’s just a little scary. People that don’t think it is are stupid.”

Phil Katz agrees. He has devoted his life to baseball, loves it more than just about anyone.

A longtime head coach at Linn-Mar and Alburnett, Katz, 66, is pitching coach at Linn-Mar this season. At least for now.

He has made it through four practices, but honestly doesn’t know how many more he’ll make. As much as he loves teaching kids the game, this literally is a day-by-day thing for him.

“Very nervous about this premature start,” he said. “As an older coach with health issues, this is scary. I’m going to give it a go, at least initially, but I won’t be doing bus rides, things like that. Going to try and stay away from everyone as much as I can.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Katz is strong in his belief that there should be no season, that the risk doesn’t outweigh the reward here. Though the Iowa Department of Education produced extensive safety guidelines, he doesn’t think they are extensive enough.

He gave as an example a guideline that states players should, as much as possible, not share equipment, pointing out many schools, especially smaller ones, can only afford a certain amount of helmets. Sharing is inevitable.

“To me, there are just so many hidden scenarios that come up ... So many unknowns right now,” he said. “I guess my whole point is it’s too early, because there are just too many things that we don’t know right now. Yeah, everybody wants to play. But I feel like we don’t need to be an experiment, guinea pigs. If we don’t know that things are 100-percent safe, then we shouldn’t rush into this.”

At 61, Iowa City West’s Charlie Stumpff is the elder statesman of head baseball coaches in the Mississippi Valley Conference. Because he is healthy, has no underlying conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes, he decided to continue his duties, even though his administrators told him he could sit out this season.

West has only 16 players, which makes Stumpff feel a little more at ease in regards to things like effectively being able to socially distance and conduct practices safely. He said he is encouraging all of his players to ride with their parents to road games, especially considering, he said, only 12 people (a driver, a coach and 10 players) are allowed on a single bus.

“We were probably more militant than any other school in Iowa City here at West High,” he said. “We had conversations with our union reps, video from our superintendent, people met with me and our softball coaches via Zoom. We were much more (aggressive) with all these issues, how we are going to go about it.

“We think it’s jumping the gun, would rather not do this. That being said, if you are going to do it, we feel more comfortable with us taking care of our kids than you trying to find a (replacement) coach at the last second ... All the coaches here, we don’t have any underlying health conditions, so we’ll do it. It’s just a thing where I want to let you know if I was king of the world, we wouldn’t be doing this. But you guys decide what you need to do. I think that’s kind of where we were.”

Everyone here agrees this is a test for prep sports moving forward. If things go off without a hitch, the chances of having fall sports seasons increase.

If they don’t ... well, let’s not go there, yet.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“Yes, I think this is going to dictate what happens this fall,” Bunting said. “If this doesn’t succeed, there won’t be football and volleyball. But if this works out, I think they can (consider) that and not be as concerned.”

“I don’t blame them. This is kind of an easy one,” Stumpff said. “It’s summer, kids don’t have school, there are smaller teams, by and large ... I think cynically that’s where a lot of us think we are.

“We’re the guinea pigs to see if this thing works. But somebody had to be at some time. They just kind of opened it up to us.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.