As temperatures climbed last week, softball players from around the region descended on Sather Park in Scanlon for their first practices since March.
The COVID-19 pandemic canceled spring sports for all schools in Minnesota, but as restrictions have been lifted, girls playing for the Minnesota Blast club program have returned to fields in the hope that games can begin taking place later this summer.
The coronavirus outbreak has changed the way practice looks, however.
When practice began June 1, program director Tyler Korby began checking each player for a fever each time they arrived at practice and asked a standard list of screening questions prior to taking the field. Practices occur three times a week and the girls are separated by age group, Korby said. No more than 20 players practice at one time and even then they are separated on the two fields at Sather Park.
What’s more, team meetings are socially distanced and players are asked to sanitize their hands between each activity during the two-hour sessions.
Korby said the protocols are in line with recommendations from the Minnesota Department of Health. The process can get a little tedious for the players, but it’s worth it to get back on the field — especially after such a long layoff.
“I guess it's like waking up on Christmas Day to get out there and get to play and give that opportunity to kids,” Korby said. “It was quite a joy to get back out there, to see them getting to play a sport that they love is what makes me the most happy.”
Korby said 47 girls showed up for practices in the first week — enough for four different teams at three different age levels. The 14U and 16U levels can field one team and the 18U group has enough for two teams. Korby runs three different two-hour practice sessions each day for the different age groups.
Players warmed up playing catch — socially distanced, of course — and then separated into two groups. One practiced fielding with 18U coach Olivia Diver, while others set up nets and practiced hitting from a tee.
Lucy Sinkkonen of Cloquet was just happy to be back out on the field after more than two months of staying home. Sinkkonen was the starting pitcher on the Cloquet High School team that finished third at the state tournament in Mankato in 2019. She had hoped the Lumberjacks’ 2020 squad might make a return trip, but they never got the chance because of COVID-19.
“It was really devastating because I didn’t get to step out on the field one more time,” Sinkkonen said. “I practiced all winter, too, just for this season, and it was sad not to see all my hard work pay off, but it’s good that now we have a summer season — it’s really exciting.”
Sinkkonen said she spent much of her time during the shutdown practicing her softball skills at home. She plans to attend North Dakota State University in the fall and hopes to walk on the Bison softball team next spring.
As Minnesota moves into phase three of reopening the state’s economy in the next few weeks, Korby said he hopes to begin scheduling some games for late June or July.
“I’ve been in close contact with state officials from several governing organizations and am exploring all options for games ... wherever we can are allowed by the state of Minnesota,” Korby said. “I’m keeping the hope that we can play games in our state soon.”
Editor's note: Tyler Korby writes for the Pine Journal Sports section.