State tournaments in a pandemic: ‘It’s made these kids stronger’

Cedar Rapids Kennedy players celebrate their class 5A softball championship 5-1 win over against the Fort Dodge Dodgers at Harlan & Hazel Rogers Sports Complex Park in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Photo by Matthew Putney)

Fort Dodge softball coach Andi Adams looked across the diamond last week and saw players keeping their distance, fans wearing cloth masks and teams spread out across the town’s Rogers Sports Complex.

This is what playing in a state tournament during a pandemic looks like.

Iowa high school softball and baseball teams were awarded state championship trophies to end a shortened season. They played the nation’s first state tournaments since COVID-19 swept across the nation in March.

Yet Iowa, which canceled spring track, tennis, golf and soccer, allowed high school athletes to practice softball and baseball June 1 and return to competition June 15. As the only state with sanctioned summer sports, the kids played through with safety precautions for both teams and fans.

“It didn’t seem odd, weird or hampered in any way,” said Adams, whose team finished as the Class 5A state runner-up to Cedar Rapids Kennedy Thursday in a 5-1 loss.

Forty softball teams reached the state tournament; 32 baseball teams qualified for state at Des Moines’ Principal Park.

Fears of gathering in large groups didn’t keep away fans. More than 17,000 people passed through the gates, nearly as many as last summer. The tournament’s championships were played Thursday and Friday.

“People wanted to get out and see any competition,” Adams said.

State softball titles went to Kennedy, Winterset, Albia, Ogden and Clarksville.

Meanwhile, Iowa high school baseball teams played for a chance at a championship trophy. The finals were held Saturday.

Workers applied zip ties to some stadium seats to encourage social distancing for fans, restricting seating to about 1,800. A $2 facility fee was added to the usual $10 game ticket price.

Yet as in Fort Dodge, where the state softball tournament was held for the 50th consecutive season, eager fans sent the turnstiles spinning. At one point in the semifinals, the Iowa High School Athletic Association counted 300 more spectators than a year ago.

“To a team, everyone’s done everything we’ve asked them to,” said Tom Keating, the Association’s executive director.

Players didn’t mingle and equipment was sanitized, as the state-outlined procedures were all season.

“Our staff worked closely with Principal Park staff to develop protocols,” Keating said.

In a summer when the host Iowa Cubs canceled their season and several Major League teams have endured coronavirus outbreaks, casual fans were willing to grab a seat to watch high school teams.

“They wanted to see baseball in this facility,” Keating said.

Iowa’s summer sports followed a disappointing spring for high schools; some expected to compete until an order came from the governor’s office that there would be no season.

Strict protocols were issued for summer. The most painful one – if a player tested positive, the team had to quarantine for 14 days.

Schools were given an option to play or not before the start of the season.

Players were asked to check their temperatures at home before coming to practice, where coaches and trainers checked them, too.

Athletes had to keep their distance from foes – no postgame handshakes – and equipment was kept clean with bleach spray or other sanitizers.

Instead of practice starting late in the school year, players worked out on their own until the state approved a June start.

“It’s made these kids stronger,” Adams said. “(They had to ask themselves) am I going to be tough and get out of bed, or am I going to watch TV?”

Many states are adjusting high school sports seasons for the upcoming year. In some cases, that includes moving football to spring.

Iowa schools have scheduled opening practices for most fall sports for Aug. 10. Athletic administrators have set up procedures to try to assure safety while keeping an eye on the state’s COVID-19 numbers as they mount.

“We ask that people be patient,” Keating said.

State championship results

BASEBALL

CLASS 4A: Johnston 11, Ankeny 8

CLASS 3A: Norwalk 8, Gilbert 6

CLASS 2A: Van Meter 6, Des Moines Christian 0

CLASS 1A: Don Bosco (Gilbertville) 3, Mason City Newman 2

SOFTBALL

CLASS 5A: Cedar Rapids Kennedy 5, Fort Dodge 1

CLASS 4A: Winterset 4, Carlisle 3

CLASS 3A: Albia 1, Williamsburg 0

CLASS 2A: Ogden 6, North Linn 1

CLASS 1A: Clarksville 2, Collins-Maxwell 0