Prep Sports

Iowa high school sports in the summer of COVID-19 brought mixed emotions

It was unusual, but at times seemed normal

North Linn's Trey McEnany (14) swings at a pitch during their Class 2A state quarterfinal game at Principal Park in Des
North Linn's Trey McEnany (14) swings at a pitch during their Class 2A state quarterfinal game at Principal Park in Des Moines on Monday, July 27, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Our family huddled together in silence and uncertainty.

We had discussed this moment many times during the idle spring, but it didn’t seem to help now that it had arrived.

Gov. Kim Reynolds had just announced high school baseball and softball seasons were allowed to resume, ending a suspension to competition that began in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. The May 20 declaration was quickly followed by Iowa High School Athletic Association and Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union votes to return to play with proposed states and guidelines.

Our family experienced this season on different fronts, including at-risk parents of a varsity softball player and as a reporter covering baseball and coming in contact with numerous players, coaches and even fans at various sites throughout Eastern Iowa.

At times, the season was uncomfortable and strange. Other moments seemed natural and exciting. The mixed emotions never really subsided for us, even though the majority of teams completed their seasons and state champions were crowned in both.

Like countless families, my wife, Kris, our daughters, Keely and Katie, and I weighed the risks and rewards the afternoon Reynolds made the announcement.

We had tried to gather as much information as possible, but a resolution didn’t come easy. Weight issues and high blood pressure are at-risk categories. Unfortunately, I qualify for both, while Kris takes blood pressure medication. We had to take that into consideration.

Regardless of the decision, we agreed we needed to be unanimous and definite. The consequences of either choice would be accepted from the start. It also was critical to assure both daughters their answer was supported.

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After some thought, each opted to play — Keely in her softball season at Cedar Rapids Xavier and Katie with her travel club team.

“The only thing I was worried about is if I was infected that I would spread it to people that are higher risk,” Keely said. “I trusted it would be fine. I figured if I social-distanced and do what I was supposed to do it would be fine.”

Both daughters stored their equipment in the garage. Disinfectant wipes and sprays were normal greeters when they arrived home from games and practice and when I returned to write a game story.

We established a protocol to team up and wipe down every piece of equipment that was exposed to other people or surfaces. We sprayed down bags and car interiors. This was nearly a nightly occurrence.

It proved to be a tedious task. The last thing anyone wants to do after a couple hours of practice or five to six hours spent at a doubleheader is devote additional time cleaning equipment before taking showers or resting on a couch.

The process to attend games and practices was just as time consuming. Programs handled procedures differently. Some had athletics trainers on site to record temperatures, others asked coaches to take on the responsibility and still others had players record their own at home.

The days of just driving to practice or games were gone. Xavier coaches and trainers were thorough and handled everything well. Still, whether it was over-the-top or simply cautiousness, we monitored our daughters’ vitals daily and harassed them with questions about how they felt.

“It was weird and different,” Keely said about the pregame and postgame procedures. “Usually you don’t have to worry about that. Being able to play, it didn’t really matter. It was weird at first but then you got used to it.”

The season produced its share of stressful situations that caused us to be on alert. Xavier played a team that underwent testing. I covered multiple teams that had been previously exposed to a program suspended for a positive test.

Our younger daughter played club softball at the same time. Twice there was a scare from teammates who felt under the weather but tested negative. We went so far as to move Katie out of the room they share for added safety. We did not want to be the cause for the premature shutdown of a season for 14 other players.

Luckily, both enjoyed uninterrupted seasons.

Covering the sport also presented different challenges than any past season. The Gazette made it very clear employees were not expected to cover events where they didn’t feel comfortable, but I was ready.

I started contacting coaches immediately, asking about their willingness to change postgame interviews. They were very flexible and understanding.

In an attempt to establish safe practices, some interviews were conducted via phone after games, like Cedar Rapids Kennedy Coach Bret Hoyer and Cougars sophomore Mason Behn after their opening win at Cedar Rapids Washington.

Marion Coach Steve Fish answered a phone call from my car after a doubleheader sweep of Vinton-Shellsburg. It had to have been odd for eighth-grader Myles Davis to conduct his first media interview with a faceless stranger over the phone handed to him by his coach. He handled it perfectly.

Some were done with a fence barrier, including one with Alburnett’s Hunter Caves and again with Iowa City Liberty’s Tyler Dahm.

Setups were different. At North Linn, Liberty and Linn-Mar, there were no fans behind home plate. Washington had spaces marked for people to sit and countless staff members policing the crowd. Xavier had an outdoor space designated for media only.

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Sometimes I sat in bleachers at a safe distance from other fans. I used my own card table and chair to work at a couple games. I watched from a lawn chair, trying to space myself from the crowd at other games.

Most places the guidelines were enforced and fans were good with compliance. There were a few infuriating hosts who didn’t enforce the guidelines that were simply ignored by fans in attendance.

The postseason seemed more traditional. Face-to-face interviews were common, including the state tournament, with more media members masked.

Press boxes that were not an option became available. Ample space for social distancing was provided for the substate doubleheader at Memorial Stadium and the four-class state tournament at Principal Park in Des Moines.

The early verdict is it went as well as could be expected. It gave fall sports hope they will have some semblance of a season. We won’t know exactly what the long-term effects will be, though.

For now, the normal feats occurred in an abnormal season. State champions were crowned, games were played and memories were made.

Especially, for our family.

“It was fun,” Keely said. “I liked it. Just being with all my teammates and playing,”

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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