High school baseball and softball returned to Iowa on Monday, the first sanctioned high school sports to begin play in the U.S. since the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports in March.
Practice began just after midnight Monday morning on two ballfields in rural Collins, Iowa. At 12:01 a.m., the Collins-Maxwell baseball and softball teams practiced on the first day -- and second minute -- that Iowa schools were allowed to play.
Gathered in a socially distant circle, the softball team counted down the seconds to 12:01 and threw their gloves in the air in celebration over the first known high school practice in 2½ months. "I'm not tired," senior pitcher Mikayla Houge said. "I'm kind of full of energy right now. Everybody has been itching to play."
Armed with hand sanitizer and a long list of safety guidelines, Iowa will try to become the blueprint for how teams navigate the world of COVID-19 this fall. Guidelines this season will include temperature checks before practices and games, no use of the dugout during practice, and sanitizing shared equipment after every use.
If a baseball pitcher blows into his hands on a cool day, the umpire will stop play until the pitcher sanitizes his hands. One of the hardest rules Collins-Maxwell baseball coach Jason Hasbrouck said he'll have to enforce is no sunflower seeds. Shell-spitting is banned this season.
Iowa is the only state in the country to hold high school sports in the summer. It is also the only state to have separate unions, or associations, for the boys and girls. Jean Berger, the executive director of the Iowa High School Girls Athletic Union, said summer seemed like the perfect opportunity to restart because few sports are as socially distant as baseball and softball. Both unions worked with Iowa's Department of Education and Department of Health to develop the guidelines.
Games can start June 15, and Berger said the two weeks of practice will be essential in breaking old habits.
"This is a change in behavior for our kids," she said. "We have to teach them to wash their hands more often and sanitize. Think about how many times a ballplayer touches their face. They spit. They chew seed. Before they get into the batter's box, they have all these little idiosyncrasies. We have to retrain. This is the summer of being a mom for us -- Don't touch your face, go wash your hands."
When Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds greenlit the return of sports on May 20, some coaches were surprised. The days were winnowing until summer, and coronavirus outbreaks were still popping up in different regions of the state. As of Monday morning, Iowa had nearly 20,000 positive cases and 537 deaths.
But Iowa's cases plateaued in early May, and more than 600 baseball and softball teams are expected to start practice today. Only one school has told the boys' and girls' associations that it will not play this year. On May 21, one day after Reynolds approved summer sports, the Belmond-Klemme district school board voted unanimously to not participate.
Belmond-Klemme superintendent Daniel Frazier said the decision was made after the number of confirmed cases in the county rose dramatically that week. Frazier said the board did not believe it was safe for the students to play. He said that he would make that same decision today even if he knew that Belmond-Klemme would be the only school to not play.
Addi McMurray, a junior outfielder at the school, said she was so happy when the governor announced that sports were back that she almost cried. She grabbed her glove and went out to the street to play catch with her cousin, who plays on the baseball team. For a few hours, she had a feeling as if things were back to normal.
A day later, she was crushed when she heard the news about the school board's decision.
"I was bawling," she said. "I went home and hugged my mom. I was hurting real bad. Once I did some research and realized what's going on, this is safest possible decision they could've made for us.
"It sucks, but I'm trying be as positive as I can and be a leader for my school and be a good role model and set an example of how things should be handled."
Collins-Maxwell softball coach Troy Houge said it would be naïve to think that teenagers, in a small town, have spent the past few months completely isolated from each other. They ride around in cars together and hang out during time that they'd normally be playing sports.
Houge, whose team has won back-to-back state championships, worries about getting his close-knit team to social distance, something that is so unnatural to them. And like every coach, he worries about someone getting sick.
Berger said this next month isn't just a trial run for sports. It's a step in opening up Iowa's schools.
"I do think we feel a responsibility to get it right," she said, "and to do it well in the hope that it helps other people and it helps us later on, too.
"This was what our coaches and kids and parents -- overwhelmingly parents -- wanted. They wanted their kids to play. Don't get me wrong; they wanted to know the protocols and wanted to follow them.
"I don't have any data to support this, but I think people are worried about kids and their mental health. They've endured a lot since March. Kids are social. Everything has changed for them, and I don't know that we've been paying enough attention to that. I think this goes a long way to bringing something back for them."