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Iowa high school baseball, softball teams take the field for first day of practice
For North baseball coach Nick Tillo, it felt like a normal day in June.
He was on the field with his players, hitting fly balls, hitting grounders, observing his players taking cuts in the batting cages during a sunny day.
“They picked up where we left off and jumped right into it. They were focused mentally and I think they were ready,” Tillo said. “Physically, I think the biggest thing is getting reps in the cage and fielding ground balls and fly balls. It was great to be back. We had a long practice because it’s two weeks until we play so we need to get everything together before we go to (Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson) in two weeks.”
The fact that Iowa had its first official days of practice in order to prep for the first games on June 15 even made national headlines when it was among ESPN.com‘s headlines. Spirit Lake’s baseball team held a practice at 12:01 a.m. on Monday.
Coaches and players are relishing their time on the field after more than two months apart.
While it felt normal for Tillo and other coaches, it was an abnormal sight compared to the state of athletics around the nation. MLB is still working out details to get on the field again, meaning high school baseball and softball players were some of the few athletes on a field when programs could officially hold their first day of practices around the state.
“It was awesome. It was really, really exciting to see the guys again. The excitement was good. Guys were flying around, there was a lot of energy and it was good to get back out there,” said Gabe Hoogers, who begins his first season as West’s baseball coach. “I couldn’t be more excited to do it with the group of guys that we have. I think we have a great group and we are excited to go out there with the four seniors and give them a proper sendoff.”
Hoogers is one of a few new coaches to the metro area. Another is East softball coach Bubba Malenosky, who isn’t just new to the Black Raiders program. It is of his first trips on the softball field since he is a former baseball assistant coach.
He was glad to finally get the chance to step on East’s softball field on Monday.
“It’s kind of strange for me because I am a brand new coach. Got to do one pitcher-catcher session and then practice starts,” Malenosky said. “It went well. I think the girls are ready to be out there doing something. They are enthusiastic. They haven’t been able to do much lately, nobody has been able to. I am from the baseball world so making the transition. It’s my first taste of softball and from what I can tell, it’s a lot faster pace game. It seems to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be a pretty good transition.
“You know what, I think the girls enjoyed it. It felt just like it used to. Hitting ground balls, pop flies, the kids got into it and it was fun. Everyone was excited to be outside and to be on the field.”
The practices felt normal for the coaches but there were slight changes due to the guidelines the IHSAA and IGHSAU set. Players need to socially distance so that means no group huddles during practices. So players were spread out in the infield as Hoogers gave instructions when West’s practice started on Monday morning.
“The weirdest part is bringing them in at the beginning of practice but make sure they are socially distanced. I had them have their arms out and make sure they weren’t touching anyone because they would be too close then,” Hoogers said. “Normally you have a huddle. Other than that, (the guidelines) haven’t changed much. Ninety percent of the time you are six feet apart. As far as changes, we will work through it pretty easily.”
Postgame handshakes as a show of sportsmanship were commonplace at the end of games but due to the guidelines, those will not happen this season. Malenosky hopes for a new sign of sportsmanship to emerge after games.
“I think with the guidelines, the girls will get used to them. I think people will get used to them. After practice, you can’t even put hands in a huddle,” Malenosky said. “The team building and sportsmanship things like that, I am going to miss. They are important but it will be learn on the fly and see what teams want to do. I really feel we need to do something, like a tip of the cap or something. One of the reasons we are coaching is to teach them life lessons. I think it’s a big part of athletics.”
Sunflower seeds and spitting are both banned, too. Seeds were common at baseball and softball fields with players and coaches and were available at concession stands, which also aren’t allowed this summer.
For Hoogers, it will be a major habit to break but he is more than willing to change in order to have a season.
“That’s going to be a tough one for me in general,” Hoogers said with a laugh. “They help with the nerves for me. I will bring a couple of bags with me, so that will be different. When I was working on the field before practices, I’ve been mindful of it. Every time I have caught myself. The guys seem understanding with all of the guidelines and restrictions. Some of them will take more time. Every time we catch them, we call them on it.”
Teams also have to sanitize equipment regularly from balls to bats to helmets, which is something players and coaches didn’t have to worry about in the pre-coronavirus world.
However, Tillo, who chews gum instead of sunflower seeds, doesn’t feel that will hold anything up in practices or games.
“It’s different that way. The sanitizing and everyone having their own helmets, that part is different but we will get used to that,” Tillo said. “It’s just a little bump in the road. Even though there are small changes, it’s not that drastic, to be honest. We are so glad to be back.
“It’s a shortened season and that’s fine as long as we are playing. All of the kids are ready and we have more kids out. More kids want to do something. The coaches are happy. The games will have good crowds because there is nothing else to do. Why not go out and watch high school baseball?”