WPIAL baseball, softball teams bag southern trips over coronavirus pandemic

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 | 12:56 PM

Knowing the feedback he would get, Aaron Albert could hardly break the news to his players without getting emotional.

The Kiski Area baseball coach last week had to tell the Cavaliers their trip to Vero Beach, Fla., was canceled because of safety and travel concerns over the widespread threat of the coronavirus.

Instead of playing season-opening games at the MLB Jackie Robinson Training Complex, Kiski Area — and every other team in the state — is stalled while they await a decision from the PIAA on whether there will be a season at all.

Schools were closed Monday and will remain that way until at least March 30 when the state will review the situation and the global pandemic’s effects on Pennsylvania.

Teams went south in the past to avoid wet weather in the state. Now, there is nowhere to run.

Weather-related postponements suddenly don’t seem so bad.

“The hardest part is the disappointment the kids are feeling,” Albert said. “This would have been the first-ever trip south for a Kiski team, and they deserved it. This senior group bought into my message from Day 1 when I got here last year, and this trip would have been a great reward for that.”

But Kiski Area is not alone. Far from it, in fact.

A laundry list of WPIAL baseball and softball teams also had to shut down prepaid trips to the south.

For now, everyone is safe at home.

“We’re in uncharted water here. This is something I know I have never experienced in my lifetime and I know they haven’t, and we talked about that,” said Elizabeth Forward baseball coach Frank Champ, whose Warriors had planned to open the season in Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the 12th straight spring.

“They understand we’re in a global pandemic here and baseball has been put aside for the overall health and safety of our students and players, which is the most important thing.”

Who’s on first?

In many cases, schools decided it would be best for their teams to avoid traveling. In others, the game sites themselves canceled before the teams made their moves.

With the closing of schools, after-school activities also were shut down, including team practices and gatherings.

That meant the spring training trips, where teams often play three or four games, would have met their demise in one way or another.

Hempfield, Belle Vernon, Mt. Pleasant, Deer Lakes, Mars, Thomas Jefferson, Hopewell and New Brighton also had to cancel trips to Myrtle Beach.

Plum is not going to St. Petersburg, Fla., and South Fayette scratched its trip to Tampa.

Softball teams also were affected. Elizabeth Forward wiped out its venture to Orlando, Fla., and Seneca Valley is not going to Myrtle Beach. Knoch won’t make the drive to Kentucky to open the schedule.

“It’s been an annual trip that the players have viewed as an opportunity to grow closer together and play the game they love,” Mars baseball coach Jason Thompson said. “This trip is something that our boosters, parents and players work very hard fundraising and planning for almost an entire year. After the NBA, NHL, NCAA and MLB all stopped their seasons, the kids knew it was coming. The seniors took it the hardest because they will not be able to have that experience again.”

Mt. Pleasant superintendent Tim Gabauer said a number of factors were weighed before his school district opted to cancel the Vikings’ trip.

“There were so many things to consider,” Gabauer said. “What if they get to South Carolina, things progress and they are quarantined there? What if they come back to (Pennsylvania) and someone from the trip is ill and brings it back to our community? What if the airlines stop their flights while they are gone?

“The questions and concerns became too numerous, and our world here in the United States began changing even more dramatically.”

Gabauer attended a meeting of superintendents March 12 and ran into another head of schools who also had a team going to Disney.

“We had spoken only a day earlier about the trips and thought we could both support them at that particular time, but we were closely monitoring,” Gabauer said. “By the time our conversation occurred Thursday morning, I believe we both saw the world in a different way. I thought it was my obligation to step in and have a conversation with the team about my concerns and halt the team from taking their trip.”

Money ball

Money is always an issue with these trips. Boosters raise funds for months to help send the teams out of state. The trips annually cost several thousand dollars.

At least three schools revealed their bill was in upwards of $20,000.

Think about it: the event, flights, lodging, transportation, food and more for a group of around 20 players and coaches adds up quickly.

This is no family-of-four vacation.

Events such as the one Kiski Area was planned to attend, along with the Cal Ripken Experience in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and others at the Walt Disney World Resort and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, ask for payment well in advance and deposits are nonrefundable.

Albert, though, said Kiski Area will receive a full refund.

“The flights are the only unknown,” Albert said. “I think each player will have a plane voucher good for one year as the refunded part of that.”

Hempfield coach Tim Buzzard said the Ripken Experience “team” reached out to him last week to nip any confusion in the bud.

Their statement read: “In an abundance of caution and in the best interest of our ballplayers, their families, umpires, and our employees, Ripken Baseball is suspending programming and operations at our Ripken Experience facilities through the end of March.”

Rescheduling the trips without knowing what the future holds is not an option.

Buzzard said he thinks Hempfield should be able to recover most of the money it paid.

“It was something we were really looking forward to,” Buzzard said of the trip. “With that said, we were all prepared that this could happen given the previous events. At that point, the attention turned to hopefully having a season. The most important thing right now is that everyone stays healthy. We are just hopeful things will progress and the kids will be able to have some form of a season.”

Other teams also are getting refunds.

“We just need to make the most of the situation and move forward,” said Seneca Valley softball coach George Trew, whose team paid about $15,000 for its trip. “We will be getting most of (the payment) back and the rest will be transferred to next year. We really won’t lose anything.

“We are just taking it one day at a time, and responding to whatever decisions are made. Hopefully, we will be playing softball soon.”

Mars’ Thompson said the disruption in the spring sports season most affects the seniors.

“We choose to view this as a challenge to come closer together as a team,” he said. “I am so proud to say that my players committed to each other that they would keep working on their own so they could be ready to compete when the season continues. They want to compete, even if it’s only a few games. For most of our seniors, and many around the country, this is their final season because they are not playing baseball in college.”

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

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