Condensing a season to as little as six weeks and dealing with many conflicts arising from playing during summer would present many challenges, but area spring sports coaches are hopeful for that chance as opposed to continuing to sit at home.
Spring sports teams across the state had been practicing for several weeks when the Ohio High School Athletic Association indefinitely suspended the season in mid-March due to a statewide school building closure put in place by Gov. Mike DeWine to slow the spread of COVID-19. Spring sports have been suspended since, but the OHSAA is hopeful they’ll resume in May.
The association released new timetables for each spring sport last week. Assuming the school closure order expires, the new schedule calls for teams to restart practice on May 4 and for regular-season play to begin May 9. Tournament play will begin shortly after, culminating in state tournaments in mid-to-late June.
“Anything is better than nothing,” Sidney baseball coach Thomas Goffena said. “At least they have a plan and if we do go back, we know what’s going to happen. We’re not just waiting and trying to guess.”
It would be among the most condensed seasons in the association’s history. Softball, track and field and boys tennis would take place in a little more than seven weeks while baseball would take place in a little more than six weeks.
“You hope that everyone has stayed somewhat in shape, and before we left, we talked about how they could work on their own, but it’s definitely hard to do, and I realize that,” Russia softball coach Michelle Muhlenkamp said.
All spring sports will face issues with truncated seasons, with the biggest shared factor being physical fitness of athletes after a long layoff.
Baseball and softball teams may have the biggest issue when it comes to fitness. After having no practice for seven weeks, pitchers would have five days to prepare before facing opposing batters.
“They’ll be pretty much at square one,” Goffena said. “We can tell them to do (workouts) at home, but I can’t guarantee that they’re doing it. Pitching is going to be hard when everyone is playing four to six games a week.”
Muhlenkamp said she’s especially concerned about softball pitchers, since most squads have one player that pitches the vast majority of the time.
“Even if they’re working out on their own, let’s be honest, at their house, it’s hard to pitch full games,” Muhlenkamp said. “If we jump right back into seven inning games back-to-back-to-back days, that’s definitely going to be a big adjustment for them. As coaches, that’ll be a big responsibility to make sure they’re healthy and we’re not overdoing it.”
Teams will also have to deal with issues stemming for balancing other typical summer activities, whether players have a summer job, vacation or conflict with a travel club sport.
Muhlenkamp said she’s hopeful if the OHSAA’s plan is used, summer club organizations will push back their seasons so players won’t have to choose between those teams and their high school teams.
“It’ll be a learning curve to try to figure out how that works out,” Muhlenkamp said. “… I definitely appreciate (the OHSAA) putting together a plan. I think they’re doing the best they can with this since they’ve never had to deal with this kind of situation before, kind of like the rest of us.”
Goffena and Muhlenkamp have both been keeping in contact with players. Goffena said he’s messaging players on social media and trying to cheer them up as much as possible. Muhlenkamp said she has video conferences with her players on Zoom every Wednesday and has players do bonding activities.
Both have promoted their squads as well. Goffena posted biographies and photos on Twitter of all his team’s seniors, while Muhlenkamp posted photos on Facebook of her squad’s players driving through Russia in a caravan on the day the team’s first game was originally scheduled for.
“They drove around town and stopped at my house,” Muhlenkamp said. “… It was really good to see them. It definitely wasn’t the same as real opening day, but it was really special. I had a few tears, that’s for sure.”
Both Sidney’s baseball squad and Russia’s softball squad had high expectations when practice began in late February.
The Yellow Jackets struggled through much of last year and finished 6-20 but advanced to a sectional final after an opening-round upset of Tecumseh. The squad was slated to return most of its varsity players from last year, including 10 seniors.
Goffena was also excited to see improvement stemming from a more intense offseason program. Players had many more open gym opportunities as a result of construction of the Goffena Training Facility, an indoor complex geared toward baseball and softball that was constructed last summer and opened in October.
“I think that’s what hurts the most, with how much work we put in,” Goffena said. “Usually I’d wait until after Thanksgiving until having the kids come out and work with them in the offseason, and we didn’t get that many open gyms usually.
“But this year we started a lot earlier with (the facility) opening in October. We put in so many hours in there over the winter. Our 10 seniors put in a lot of time. This has just been hard for those guys.”
Russia’s softball squad was looking to earn its fifth consecutive Shelby County Athletic League title this season.
The Raiders lost many players from its 2018 squad to graduation and started slow a year ago but finished 15-7 overall and 11-1 in league play. The squad clinched its fourth straight SCAL title with a 15-2 win over rival Houston.
Russia lost five players from last year due to graduation but had several starters and key backup players returning in addition to a large freshman class.
“We were really looking forward to this season,” Muhlenkamp said. “We had a lot of young players who were ready to step up and fill in some major roles. It’s tough, because we got a peak in the first three weeks (of practice) how talented some of the younger players are. It’s unfortunate we don’t get to see them play.”
Whether the OHSAA’s plan will be used will be indirectly decided to DeWine. OHSAA executive director Jerry Snodgrass said in a memo last week the association will cancel spring sports if DeWine closes schools for the rest of the academic year.
Until a decision comes, the waiting game continues.
“I’m going to be totally honest with myself and my players,” Goffena said. “I’m not a professional that makes those decisions. I hope for the best, but I think the worst is going to happen for this year, and we won’t have anything.”