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Virus cases impacting Iowa HS summer games

Three weeks into the resumption of high school sports in Iowa, the early June hopes of coaches, players and parents have turned to nervousness as coronavirus cases and word of possible infections have suspended or halted some summer games.

Roughly 25 of the 338 high school baseball teams and 20 high school softball teams playing have been impacted by possible COVID-19 exposures or infections, according to Iowa high school athletic officials. Postseason tournaments for both sports are scheduled to begin in the next couple of weeks, with state tournaments still scheduled for late July.

In addition to coronavirus concerns, there have been at least two reported incidents of racial slurs and taunts directed at players and families attending games. One occurred in Storm Lake on June 15 and involved a derogatory term for Latinos, and one on June 27 was directed at a Black player from Charles City playing in a varsity game at Waverly-Shell Rock High School. In both cases, school officials condemned the incidents.

“Our students must know we have their backs regardless of the circumstances, and that we are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with them to end oppression and to create the world that we know is possible,” said a statement by the Charles City school district. “Our state and nation needs to know that our thoughts, words, and actions matter. We must do better. We must be better.”

Iowa became the first state to resume sanctioned high school athletic activities after the coronavirus pandemic essentially shut down sports in March. Gov. Kim Reynolds announced practices for softball and baseball could begin June 1, and games could start June 15.

With social distancing, temperature checks and other safety measures in place, the move was seen as a possible blueprint for proceeding with high school sports in the fall.

After three weeks, however, there remain more questions than answers about whether there could be a fall sports season. Or how many baseball and softball teams will get through mid-July to play a postseason.

At a baseball game in eastern Iowa on Wednesday night, the public-address announcer informed everyone in the stadium that the game was suspended because of a possible COVID-19 exposure.

Western Dubuque High, which boasts the state’s best player — Ole Miss recruit Calvin Harris — was leading Cedar Rapids Washington 6-1 in the top of the third inning, and a foul ball had just sailed to deep left field. And then the game stopped.

Western Dubuque is awaiting test results to see if the team can resume play.

When Cedar Rapids Washington activities director Grant Schultz got word that Western Dubuque had a possible exposure, thus suspending the game, he said a few jaws dropped in the socially distant stadium, but it wasn’t a big surprise. Two other schools in their conference have already had to suspend games because of coronavirus concerns.

“Any time I talk with our conference ADs, we all kind of look at each other like it’s only a matter of time,” Schultz said. “We’re all thinking we won’t make it through the season yet. It’s becoming so rampant right now with so many programs having to shut down with quarantines. We’re all looking at each other like, ‘Well, it’s only a matter of time before we’re next.'”

On the other side of the state, the Storm Lake St. Mary’s baseball team was preparing to travel to Sioux Central on Wednesday when St. Mary’s coach Alex Schwing received a text from Test Iowa telling him his COVID-19 results were in. The text directed him to two emails, and a result that he had to read multiple times.

He tested positive.

He had to call off the season because the team has a 14-day quarantine, which means they won’t be back in time for the postseason. He decided to get tested Monday after an opposing team called and had to cancel a game because of a possible exposure.

Schwing thought there was no way he had COVID-19. Besides coaching, he said, he’d only been to a few golf courses and the grocery store. He said he didn’t wear a mask when he went to the store, something he regrets now.

Chris Cuellar, communications director for the Iowa High School Athletic Association, said social distancing has been one of the biggest challenges. The Des Moines Public Schools require players to wear masks in dugouts, and attendance for games is limited. But in other places, Cuellar said, policies are more lax and “it’s like coronavirus doesn’t exist.”

Iowa is playing a compressed season that amounts to about a month’s worth of games, and the postseason starts July 13 for the smaller schools. If a team is forced to quarantine for 14 days, it would miss the postseason.

Asked how many quarantines it would take for Iowa to shut down the season, Cuellar said the boys’ association doesn’t have a set number.

“We could do hypotheticals all day,” he said. “If we’re talking multiple regions of the state missing multiple games … If we [couldn’t] qualify eight teams from eight different assigned areas, that would be a problem.”

In softball, about 20 teams have been impacted, according to Jean Berger, executive director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union.

“We have no reports of a player giving it to another player,” said Berger, who added that 20 teams is actually lower than what she anticipated.

Still, she’s worried about the Fourth of July weekend and large groups of teenagers and adults getting together for parties and barbecues. Berger is a grandmother with asthma, and when she goes to games, she wears a mask. She’s been to at least one game in which she was the only spectator wearing one.

“There’s been many sleepless nights, and my stomach has hurt,” she said. “But I still think this was the right thing because I see them managing it and I see them enjoying it. I see the normalcy of it. I know it was the right thing to do. But it’s still a virus, and I don’t want people to get sick.”

The Iowa Department of Health, along with the governor’s office, recently allowed offseason workouts, camps and weight rooms in the state to open July 1, and Berger said they should know the ramifications of that in a couple of weeks.

Behind the scenes, some coaches and administrators are uncertain whether there will be high school football this fall. Sanitation supplies are still on backorder in some areas, and hundreds of high school teams can’t exist in a bubble like the NBA and other pro leagues.

Schwing wonders how it will all work when school starts. Schwing, who is 24 and has diabetes, said he’s asymptomatic for COVID-19 right now. But he wonders whether he caught the virus in its initial stages and if the worst is still to come.

This was Schwing’s first year coaching — he’s also St. Mary’s athletic director — and he was excited to share his love of baseball with the tiny school in northwest Iowa. When he called in the team to tell everyone the news about the test — and their season — one player was so upset that he slammed his glove to the ground.

But then Sam Peters, one of the seniors, told the team that they were lucky. They got to play six games when so many other high school students couldn’t.

“That was heartwarming for me,” Schwing said.

He coughed twice during his phone call, and pondered what he was going to do for the next 11 days. He said he might watch “Hamilton.” He said he’d plan for a fall season that may or may not happen.

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