Iowa high schools first up as baseball, softball return amid coronavirus

St. Mary's kicks off baseball, softball as Iowa resumes HS sports (3:37)

St. Mary's School in Storm Lake, Iowa, kicks off its baseball and softball seasons despite lingering coronavirus concerns. (3:37)

The day high school sports returned, Alex Schwing was not ready. The baseball equipment he longed to use gathered dust while Schwing powered through another coronavirus pandemic work-from-home day in his two-bedroom apartment in Storm Lake, Iowa. It was a full-pot-of-coffee morning for Schwing, a middle school math teacher who has a mug that says "4 out of 3 People Struggle with Fractions." He hates working from home.

Like most coaches at small schools, he holds many jobs at Storm Lake St. Mary's -- athletic director, transportation director, high school baseball coach and teacher. He's 24 years old.

He wasn't tuned in to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds' daily coronavirus news conference on May 20, when she gave the green light for Iowa high schools to begin their summer baseball and softball seasons. Schwing saw the news while scrolling through Twitter. And then he gulped.

Practice would start June 1, games could begin two weeks later, and there was so much to do. He needed to order jerseys. He needed an assistant coach. He texted a job offer to Eric Broich, a 22-year-old part-time basketball assistant/full-time farmer. Broich needed a few days of contemplation, but the St. Mary's alumnus couldn't say no. "Sign me up," he texted Schwing.

Everything was humming along, and then on May 28, the governor's office dropped more news. Five hundred and fifty-five employees at Storm Lake's Tyson pork processing plant had tested positive for the coronavirus. The plant is less than a mile from St. Mary's baseball field, and its scent wafts over most practices. Some of the parents of Schwing's ballplayers work there.

Schwing's mom happened to be visiting the day the outbreak was announced. The night before, when they drove to get gas-station pizza, she'd noticed a giant white "Test Iowa" tent parked in the middle of town, next to the public high school.

Erin Schwing had urged her son to return home to Lake Benton, Minnesota, in March, when the pandemic shuttered Iowa schools and sports. Alex is her baby, the youngest of six kids, and he has Type 1 diabetes, which puts him in a high-risk category if he contracts the virus.

At first, she wanted to call the principal, the superintendent, anyone who could get him out of coaching this summer. But baseball has always been Alex's love, and although he'd never coached it before, he had seniors who wanted one last game and a community that needed to somehow push forward. He told her they could do this.

Erin Schwing sighs when she thinks of all the things that could go wrong.

"I'm scared as hell," she says.

The hopeful eyes of America's coaches, athletes and school administrators will be watching Iowa this summer as it navigates the first sanctioned high school season during the coronavirus pandemic. Opening day was Monday, and hundreds of baseball and softball games were played near cornfields and in suburbs. The scores are the least significant results.

America is nervously reopening, with more than 116,000 lives lost, more than 2 million people infected and a virus that cannot be controlled without an effective vaccine, which isn't expected until next year, at the earliest. Movie theaters, hair salons and casinos are reopening, and life -- and deaths -- will go on.

The success of Iowa's experiment ultimately will ride on what doesn't happen. If it works, it could help pave the way for football and volleyball and even in-school classes this fall across the country.

"We understand the spotlight is on Iowa and we need to do this right," says Dr. Eric Stenberg, an ER doctor who also coaches softball at Benton Community High School in eastern Iowa. "This is going to affect other states and other sports throughout the year. Nothing is a done deal if we blow this. There's a lot on the line. There's a lot of reasons for us to do things the right way."

Opening day, unfortunately, revealed what has been known since March: COVID-19 isn't going away. Woodbine, a southwest Iowa town that competes in Iowa's smallest class, canceled its game Monday after a baseball player tested positive for the virus. Principal Sam Swenson said the team will self-quarantine until June 22, 14 days from when the player last practiced.

Iowa's compressed regular season is about a month long, but Swenson, who is also the co-athletic director, said Woodbine plans to play baseball on June 22.

"We're just trying to do what's best for the kids," he says, "and hopefully someday we'll all get back to normal and we don't have to deal with this stuff."

The past three months have been anything but normal. Forty-four million Americans have filed first-time claims for unemployment in the past 12 weeks. City streets have been filled with protests against police brutality and racial injustice after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May. On Monday, Iowa played high school baseball games in downtown Des Moines at Principal Park, which the day before was the site of a Black Lives Matter unity march and rally that attracted 1,000 people.

Iowa has seen many of its cultural institutions wiped away this summer because of the pandemic. The Iowa State Fair was canceled, costing the regional economy more than $100 million and one giant cow made of butter. RAGBRAI, the annual summer bike ride across Iowa, was scrapped too.

Iowa is the only state in the country that plays high school baseball and softball in the summer, but the season was in serious doubt as late as May 15, when the Iowa High School Athletic Directors Association held a Zoom meeting with many questions and very few answers. One official on the call suggested that if there was a season, it should probably have an asterisk. Young baseball arms that for months were used mainly to play video games would have little time to get ready.

Five days later, the games were on.

Christine Petersen, the director for the University of Iowa's Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, understands the mental health aspect of America's youth needing something to look forward to and some semblance of their old lives. She has a teenage son. But that son recently went to a youth baseball tournament and saw players huddling at the mound, hanging out in groups and lapsing back to old non-socially-distant habits.

"Some people are taking precautions, and some people aren't," Petersen says. "Unfortunately, the people who are less than 30 years old seem to be taking the least amount of precautions."

The virus started in the eastern part of the state in early March. Three people who'd been on an Egyptian cruise returned to Johnson County, which includes Iowa City, on March 3. Five days later, they were the state's first confirmed cases. Schools began to shut down in mid-March, and by April 1, Iowa had 549 cases and nine deaths. Buena Vista County, where Storm Lake is in northwest Iowa, confirmed its first case on April 7. It took just under two months to escalate into an outbreak there. (Storm Lake's county is currently the No. 2 hot spot in the country, according to a New York Times database that tracks counties with the highest number of recent cases per resident during the past two weeks.)

It took just 3½ months for Iowa's numbers to reach 24,110 cases and 661 deaths.

"It was almost like one of those slow-moving storm systems," Eric Stenberg says. "You can kind of predict what the weather is going to be like based on where you're at."

As an emergency room doctor in Iowa City and Washington, Iowa, Stenberg helped treat the state's first wave of coronavirus patients. Personal protective equipment (PPE) was low throughout the country, and when he intubated a patient, he didn't know whether he had enough protection or might infect his family when he went home.

In March, playing a summer softball season was the furthest thing from his mind. The virus was new and unknown. But by late April, Stenberg, who notes that he does not speak on behalf of the Benton Community School District, was armed with more knowledge. The virus was pernicious in crowded indoor spaces such as subways and meatpacking plants.

Baseball and softball are played outdoors and socially distant, for the most part. If not now, he thought, then when?

He wrote up a long list of social distancing suggestions in mid-May and sent them to the Iowa boys' and girls' governing sports bodies.

Some of the ideas were with ultra-caution in mind, like having the umpire stand behind the pitcher. Others, such as temperature checks and sanitizing balls, would be on the same page as the Iowa Department of Education's 14 guidelines released on May 20, shortly after the governor's announcement. The players he coaches will wear neck gaiters that can slide up when they're in the dugout and down when they're in the field.

"This is the time to try this," Stenberg says.

Before the season, Stenberg sent players home with two waivers. One addressed health liability during the pandemic; the other was for transportation.

Six-foot social distancing is not conducive to school buses, which are the mode of transportation for most high school teams. Roughly 15 people can be socially distant in a school bus, which means some parents would have to drive their children to road games.

Jean Berger, executive director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union, said the association didn't require players or parents to sign COVID-19 liability waivers. But many school districts are using them, including Des Moines, the largest public school district in the state.

Storm Lake St. Mary's asked its baseball players to sign waivers. The K-12 school, which has fewer than 60 high school students, won't field a softball team this summer. It was low on numbers even before COVID-19, and a couple of the girls' parents didn't want to take the risk.

The baseball waiver, with words such as "intubation," "ventilator" and "death," is a sobering reminder of life during the pandemic.

"I understand that COVID-19 may cause additional risks," the form states, "some of which may not currently be known at this time."

Because Storm Lake was a COVID-19 hot spot, Alex Schwing and his principal, Ryan Berg, wanted to be careful. They decided to split up the team into small groups, three practices with five players apiece.

One of the Iowa guidelines calls for temperature checks before each practice, and Schwing doesn't let players on the field until they've shown proof that their temperature is below 100.3. Most of them take pictures of the reading on their cellphone. One day, a player forgot to take his temperature and Schwing sent him home.

In past years, the Panthers could get water from a hose on the field. Now they have to bring their own jugs and keep them at least 6 feet away from the others in the dugout. After every drill, Schwing yells, "Hydrate and sanitize!" Each player stops at a sanitizer pump near the dugout.

A neighborhood dog wandered onto the field during a recent practice, and a player jokingly told the spotted pooch to social distance.

St. Mary's spent the first week and a half practicing in small groups. Outfielder Francisco Gonzalez-Vazquez worried that it would hamper their ability to play as a team once games started. He wanted this season so badly, because he's a senior, because this is probably the last time he'll play organized sports. Gonzalez, who plans to study criminal justice in college, was crowned homecoming king in January and had plans to spend his last few months of high school with the friends he's known since grade school. That's what he loves about St. Mary's, the bonds that are shared in small schools with all ages. He remembers when he was in grade school and an upperclassman on the basketball team would high-five him in the hallway between classes. Gonzalez couldn't wait to be that guy, the star athlete leading his team to a state championship.

But the basketball team hasn't been able to re-create that magic of the early 2010s, and the baseball team went 1-17 last year. Gonzalez worked part time at the meatpacking plant this spring but had to quit when the first worker tested positive. Like Schwing, Gonzalez has Type 1 diabetes. He can't take chances.

He wore a mask when he went to Walmart and tried to keep his germ circle tight, mainly with his family and his girlfriend, Caela Kruger, whom he's been dating for 10½ months. He tracked the county's COVID-19 numbers and watched the governor's news conference when she said baseball was back. He shouted something when he heard the news. He thinks it was, "Let's go!"

Schwing developed a bond with "Frani" early on. They were both diagnosed with diabetes as teenagers. Gonzalez hustled and tried to set an example for the younger players in those first days of practice.

On the third day, he started coughing and his chest ached. Gonzalez scheduled a COVID-19 test for the next day, Thursday at noon. He remembered when the Test Iowa tent went up last month. It reminded him of something he'd seen in movies and sent a chill through him. He knew things were going to get worse.

He sat in the back seat of a gray Chevy Traverse while Caela's mom drove them to be tested. Fidgeting with his phone, a thought floated through his head. What if I can't play baseball?

Four schools have opted out of the summer season. Belmond-Klemme canceled first, citing concerns of rising coronavirus numbers in Wright County. Eagle Grove, which is about half an hour away, was all set to practice on June 1 when an exposure left coaches and players facing self-quarantines. With too many questions and not enough time, the Eagle Grove school board voted 3-2 not to participate in the summer season.

The news hit senior Jozey Gump particularly hard. She'd been practicing since the last out of 2019, hoping for a strong final season.

"I bawled," she says. "I thought my season was over. I thought that everything I worked so hard for was just gone."

The Iowa Department of Education lifted its 90-day transfer rule, and Gump called three neighboring schools to ask whether they would take her. All three schools said no.

One day, a pastor in Eagle Grove was telling one of his pastor friends in Glidden, Iowa, about Gump's dilemma. That pastor happened to be an assistant for the Glidden-Ralston softball team, which happened to be in need of a catcher.

Glidden-Ralston had only 12 players, half of whom will be freshmen in the fall. A couple of them have never played softball.

"We believe there was something special going on there," Glidden-Ralston coach Kevin Schon says. "We took it to our superintendent, and he then took it to our school board. The general feeling was, 'Hey, if we can give an Iowa kid a season after what we've all gone through, we're willing to do this.'

"She fell right into place."

Schon's daughter Talia is one of the leading hitters in the state and was the lone senior. Before Gump joined the team, Schon asked Talia if she minded sharing the senior spotlight.

"You get her," she told her dad. "We need her."

Gump was tested before she joined the team, and the result was negative. Glidden is an hour and 45 minutes away from her hometown, and she is staying with a host family.

In Belmond, sisters Allie and Madi Barrus were struggling after their season was canceled. Their mom said the family reached out to at least 15 schools and got rejected.

Last week, Glidden-Ralston added Allie and Madi too.

Frank Olson got in two games of umpiring before everything ended. It was a February NAIA softball doubleheader in a bubble dome in Minnesota. Olson had no idea it would be the last time he'd work in 2020.

Olson, who is 72, has umpired so many games that last week he went out to eat at a restaurant 60 miles from his house and the waitress recognized him. From 2010.

Olson has umpired for 49 years because he loves softball and the people he meets along the way. He has called at least 10,000 games. He was supposed to work about 200 games this year and gets restless when he's not umpiring.

When COVID-19 began sweeping through his state, Olson, a retired insurance agent, couldn't sleep. His wife, Mary, has health issues, and he worried about bringing the virus home to her, or to West Union, a northeast Iowa town of about 2,300. Or another community.

"I anguished with it," Olson says. "I thought, 'How selfish of me.' I just could not put my family through that. There's a quote that I hold dear. 'A single bad decision can open a world of lamentable consequences.'

"We do the masks when we go to the grocery store and those things. But mostly, I'm just sitting out here on about 25 acres of land, waiting for the butterflies and the wildflowers."

Ken Robbins, the coordinator of the North Iowa Officials Association, said 13 umpires have told him they won't work this summer because of the risks. It's roughly 10% of his crew.

On June 7, a Sunday, Gonzalez got his COVID-19 test result back. The seconds it took to load seemed like hours.

"Hello, Francisco Gonzalez," the message read. "You have tested NEGATIVE for COVID-19."

Gonzalez was so excited that he sent a screenshot of the message to his coach.

"Thank God," Schwing texted back. "The season [is] still on!"

Gonzalez played right field in Storm Lake's season opener Monday at Ruthven. The team wore masks for the one-hour bus ride.

Storm Lake has only three home games this summer, and recently, a conference opponent expressed concern about traveling to the town because of the outbreak. But Schwing said the opponent -- he didn't want to say the team's name -- decided it will make the trip, zipping in and out of town.

On the ride to Ruthven, Schwing tried to pump up the team. He said the game was winnable. One of his goals this season is to not get run-ruled, and the Panthers did make it to the seventh inning.

They lost 8-0.

Schwing said keeping players socially distant was a struggle at times, especially when they were up to bat. They got a taste of normalcy and lapsed back to the way things used to be.

After the game, Schwing was told about the quarantine and the cancellation at Woodbine. He worried about domino effects and whether they'll get to finish the season.

"Fingers crossed," he said, and the bus rolled home.