Travel softball teams returning to action, trying to get used to coronavirus guidelines

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Wednesday, June 3, 2020 | 9:44 PM


Travel softball will return to Pennsylvania later this month and players and coaches, particularly those who missed out on the high school season, are bubbling with anticipation to play again.

When they finally return to the field, they will be met with a laundry list of new safety guidelines brought on by the lingering coronavirus pandemic.

Teams in Ohio began their travel seasons last weekend, and some Pennsylvania teams took part in tournaments in the neighboring state.

It was a glimpse into what to expect when games resume in Pennsylvania.

“There was a whole lot of change,” said Steve Fee, the USA Softball of Western Pennsylvania Tournament Umpire-in-Chief and tournament director for ASA of Western PA Softball. “I would call it a culture change. I’m no doctor, but I think if people do the right thing, we’ll be OK.”

Social distancing, as in protecting the personal space of players, coaches and umpires, will be a priority moving forward as the country continues to prevent the spread of the virus.

“We have heard of coaches wearing masks on the field and players wearing them in the dugouts,” said longtime travel coach Dutch Harvey, the varsity coach at Yough. “There might only be three kids allowed in the dugout at a time. And they will sanitize the dugouts between games.”

Fee said umpires will not be enforcing the guidelines. The onus, instead, will fall on coaches.

Common sense, he added, also has to play a part.

“The problem is whether or not some of (the guidelines) are enforceable,” Fee said. “You hope people understand why this is happening.”

Said John DePalma, who coaches the Firecrackers 14U team, as well as the Derry varsity: “If you want to keep playing this year and be invited back to big, higher-end tournaments, you have to do your part to enforce the rules and explain how important they truly are.”

Back to action

Players will have to adapt, thinking before acting on old habits that had become second nature.

A game of repetition will now have pauses for scruples.

But one would expect the players to be extra cooperative after being cooped up for most of the spring. Wearing a mask and avoiding contact is a small price to pay for a chance to play.

“I’m very upset about high school ball being canceled, but I am overjoyed to be returning to travel ball,” said Hempfield’s Emma Hoffner, a catcher for the Ohio Outlaws program. “We have a lot of seniors on my team and getting to have one last go around with them means the world to me.”

Mt. Pleasant coach Chris Brunson is not coaching travel ball this summer but many of his players — and his daughters, Krista and Haylie — are playing on different teams.

“It will be fun to see how that training has improved their games once we get to play,” he said. “I think this break has fanned the embers of competition for a lot of competitive kids. Ohio, Indiana and points west and south have opened for play.”

Dozens of Pennsylvania teams have migrated to Ohio to start their seasons, in numerous age divisions.

Anyone who knows the travel circuit is aware of the long weekends, sometimes four games in one day over Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

With long days and a long season, guidelines could change.

“We’ll be trying to follow CDC guidelines from April and then the guidelines that might change in the green phase,” Fee said. “I hate to say it, but things are not real clear.”

Following Ohio’s lead might be the answer, at least for now. Gov. Tom Wolf soon is expected to announce guidelines for the reopening of sports in the commonwealth.

“BYOB”

Fee said bleachers were sealed off with caution tape and fans were urged to bring their own chairs, which were supposed to be 6 feet apart on the grounds.

The number of people were limited in restrooms and at the concession stands. But that is off the field. What about in-game guidelines?

To start, there were no captains at the pregame meeting, and coaches and the umpire were well separated before the first pitch was thrown.

Each team, Fee said, had to use their own softballs. The days of, “Hey, blue, how about another ball?” could be over — for now.

“When you’re on defense, you use your own balls,” Fee said. “Teams need to chase foul balls. Umpires are not throwing balls into play. It’s weird, but that’s how it was done.”

Umps are encouraged to move farther back from the catcher behind the plate.

In lieu of handshakes and high-fives, which have been placed on the back-burner, Fee said players in Ohio were tipping their caps, bumping gloves or air-high-fiving.

“I believe that as we play more and more tournaments, the guidelines will be either changed or they won’t be enforced,” said Jim Hoffner, who coaches Ohio Outlaws-Hoffner, which plays in Ohio this weekend.

“Mound” visits are no longer a tight huddle but rather a wide circle of players and coaches, spaced 6 feet out in circumference.

Teams are asked to not share equipment or water coolers and when a player makes an out, she should recover her own bat and carry it back to the dugout.

Speaking of dugouts, there may be tents pitched alongside them to extend the space for players.

Some coaches wore masks on the field and players wore them in the dugouts.

Where’s the fun in that?

Katie Hutter, a talented infielder who will be a sophomore at Mt. Pleasant, plays for the Ohio Lasers and has played a few games.

She said initially all coaches and families had to wear masks at all times and players had to wear them when they weren’t in the games.

“Those rules got canned after about a week because nobody was crazy about the idea … but the few people that felt it necessary still wore masks,” she said. “We weren’t supposed to really celebrate or high-five, but we did because it’s an atmosphere that you just can’t avoid doing that in.”

Emma Hoffner has been briefed on what she and her teammates might face when tournament play resumes.

“Wearing the masks in the dugout will be tough,” she said. “Most of the time I run in from being on the bases, throw my catcher’s gear on, and get back out there. I feel like it’s just going to be really hot.

“But whatever we have to do to be on the field, we will do.”

The “good game” handshake line also was not used in Ohio.

“The only part that really bothered me was not being able to high-five the other team at the end of the game,” said Hutter, who hit her first home run last weekend. “To just walk away from the field like that was so different, and I didn’t enjoy it.”

All things considered, Hutter was beaming just to play again.

“It just felt so back to normal to be with my teammates and support each other,” Hutter said. “Even just being able to go inside a Wendy’s in Ohio felt good.

“Bottom line is I really had the best time, and I hope we get to play most of our summer season.”

Is there a right way?

With teams coming and going for games on the same fields, like a turnstile, Fee said there may be more time in between games now so the dugouts can be cleaned.

Sites like Cranberry, where USA Softball of Western Pennsylvania will play a tournament July 4, has multiple fields. About 150 teams are expected to play.

“We’ve even talked about one team going out one way and another coming in another way,” Fee said.

UPMC developed a “playbook” to “assist coaches, athletic trainers and organizers with creating a safe environment for youth athletes, fans and staff as they consider a return to play.”

Its focus is on spacing, sanitization, pre-participation exams and daily temperature checks, and it is broken into a four-phase plan.

Fee said his league will use a hybrid form of Ohio’s guidelines, what Secretary of Health Rachel Levine announces, and the UPMC guidelines, when play begins.

“We’ll look at the best practices from other organizations and events,” Fee said. “Many of them have their own twist — some basic guidelines with a little more or less.”

A new calendar

The timing of the season has disrupted the normal workflow of the travel schedule. Local tournaments are now going to spill over into August or later.

Normally by the start of August, teams are preparing for the following season.

Those who play a fall sport may need to reconfigure their plans.

“Kids are going to be dealing with changes they have never seen before,” Harvey said. “There will be no fall ball for high school. The travel kids will be going every weekend for seven weeks. Pitchers’ arms are going to be affected greatly.”

Travel showcase events also were postponed because of covid-19. That will impact the class of 2021 prospects, in particular, who won’t be able to have any live interaction with college coaches until June 30.

They may have to send last year’s highlights to kickstart the recruiting process.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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