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Despite Pandemic, Iowa In Midst Of Summer High School Softball

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(Photo by Matthew Putney)

When schools across the country closed in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sports at every level shut down for the foreseeable future. But, Iowa, which normally plays its softball and baseball seasons in the summer, picked up softball in mid-June with an abbreviated season that will wrap up at the end of the month.

Even with most public events in limbo and gatherings of large numbers of people all but forbidden, the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union (IGHSAU) gave schools the green light, in accordance with the Department of Education, to start play.

“We came up with some sport-specific things,” IGHSAU Executive Director Jean Berger said. “It was permissive and our decision (to do so). At the time in May, our hospitalizations were going down and Iowa was in a good place. I think we decided that ultimately our schools could do it safely. Overwhelmingly, the parents really, really wanted the season even though it was shortened. Our schools were willing to step up and handle a lot of the requirements, so we thought we’d give it a shot.”

This season has looked different than what most players in Iowa are accustomed to. Dugouts are not allowed to be used during practices. Players must put their bags on the fence, six feet apart, and are responsible for bringing their own gear such as water bottles, helmets and bats.

During games, umpires are not allowed inside the dugout for substitutions. Any ball hit out of play must be retrieved by the defensive team and taken back for sanitation. It's taken a laundry list of measures to play high school softball this season in Iowa, but ones that are necessary to ensure the safety of the student-athletes.

Even little things that go into each individual player’s routine during a game have been altered to limit the spread of any possible exposure to the virus.

“We’ve had to teach the pitchers to not go to their mouths with their fingers and to not adjust their face masks,” Berger said. “There’s no leaving the dugout after a home run for a giant celebration. It’s a little bit of an honor system with those things. We changed everything nearly.”

Although teams have returned to play, it doesn’t mean the global pandemic has become any less of a threat. More than a dozen schools in both baseball and softball have had to postpone or cancel their seasons due to positive tests.

The IGHSAU doesn’t mandate COVID-19 testing as a requirement to play, but temperature checks are mandatory before each practice and game. In the event of a positive test, health officials and schools are expected to develop a roadmap to find out about any possible exposure the athletes have had.

“If there’s a positive test, there’s contact tracing involved. Our schools would contact their county department of health,” Berger said. “There are 99 counties in Iowa and at one time, 77 of the 99 counties were open and 22 were closed. That just shows you the different levels of the virus and the activity of the virus. There’s a lot of local decision making.”

With schools set to begin their reopening plans for the fall, Iowa will have more than softball to worry about. How it handled the abbreviated softball season will serve as precedent for how it handles non-athletic situations in the classroom going forward.

“I think what softball and baseball did for our schools was give them a chance to think about their protocols for positive tests or exposure,” Berger said. “Now, as we go back to school, if you have one person in a sixth grade class that got exposed, how would you handle it? Well, it would be pretty similar to how you handle  a softball team.”

Fort Dodge and Waukee are among the favorites heading into 5A regional play in the coming weeks. Fort Dodge, which started the season as the preseason No. 1 team in the state’s largest division, sits at 24-3 and has dominated nearly their entire season.

Iowa’s blueprint has been closely monitored by local states and associations around the country. It hasn’t been perfect and there have been road bumps along the way, but Iowa is set to crown five softball state champions at the end of July, making it the first state to do so since COVID-19 precautions began across the United States.

“We’ve been meeting with a lot of executive directors across the Midwest and I think they’ve been cheering for us,” Berger said. “They were very interested with how our teams were able to get through, to see what worked and what didn’t. I think they were all hoping to see this through and have a state championship.”

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