PORTSMOUTH — Like so many summer softball programs, the West Virginia Dusters are indeed overjoyed to be back playing ball.
Although, no doubt, it’s a whole new ballgame.
That’s because the Dusters, a Huntington-based travel team which includes six players from Ohio high school districts with one apiece from Portsmouth and Clay high schools, are adjusting not exactly to fly balls — but rather on the fly itself.
Although ecstatic about playing again after witnessing their high school seasons get cancelled in response to the coronavirus threat, the Dusters —and all other summer softball and baseball teams — must abide by the new social distancing guidelines.
That goes for both closed practices and especially spectator-open games, as the 10-player 2020 Dusters —which unfortunately have had some tournaments and all college showcases get cancelled — are taking the diamond knowing that at any point in June and July the season may suddenly end.
They were scheduled — with weather permitting — to start their season this weekend with a tournament in Beaver.
As Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced in mid-May, softball is one of a handful of statewide sports —because of its limited contact nature —that could “reopen” following Memorial Day.
That “reopening”, part of DeWine’s “Responsible Restart Ohio” plan, includes both mandatory and recommended guidelines for baseball and softball leagues and golf course and tennis courts operators — and took effect on Tuesday, May 26.
Found at https://coronavirus.ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/covid-19/responsible-restart-ohio/Sector-Specific-Operating-Requirements/Sector-Specific-Operating-Requirements, these are not OHSAA (Ohio High School Athletic Association) regulations, but those created by DeWine’s office.
But after the OHSAA initially twice postponed prior to cancelling the spring sports season, the Dusters are more than willing to follow the measures — just in order to play.
For Clay’s Preslee Lutz, who completed her sophomore year and is a second-year Duster, it’s incredible to be playing with her teammates again.
“It was a totally different experience than what I would’ve hoped to experience. I would rather be working out with my team and getting ready for the (high school) season with them. It’s just not as fun working out on your own as it is when you are with your teammates and friends. When I found out my high school season was cancelled, I was upset because I was really looking forward to playing and having a fun season. I was really worried that our summer season was going to be cancelled with our high school season being cancelled and everything just slowly opening back up,” she said. “I figured we wouldn’t end up having a season with everything going on, but when I found out that we could play this summer, I was glad that I could play some games and get to see my teammates.”
Addi Dillow of Coal Grove, who completed her junior year, “didn’t think we would get to play again”.
“It was honestly hard to transition from being with a team to being an individual. Our travel team did have a fun workout game to keep us all moving and in shape. I think that most travel ball teams and coaches thought that there would be no summer season. When Gov. DeWine announced that we could start practicing, I was so excited to get back out on the field and to see my teammates again,” she said.
Leah Alford of Jackson, a first-year Duster player who completed her sophomore year, concurred.
“Although it was very hard to find motivation to take a run or hit some balls off the tee, I reminded myself that other girls were having the same problem and that I was not alone in all of this. As the season continued to get postponed, I really was starting to lose hope that I would get to play ball at all this year. When they finally cancelled the school season, I was devastated, but I knew that this was all part of God’s plan. I was more than worried that travel season would be cancelled. I was sure of it,” she said. “So when I heard we would be getting to play, I was overjoyed. I decided I would take any chance at being on the field I could get.”
Portsmouth’s Madison Perry, another junior-to-be and three-year Duster member, conversely played the glass as half-full — and expressed excitement at the season given a green light.
“I was upset about my sophomore year being cancelled, but at least I knew I would have softball in the summer. I was working out at home with weights and hitting and fielding on my own four days a week. I wasn’t that worried about my summer season with the Dusters being cancelled, because I tried to stay positive and just practice and prepare for the summer and not think about it being cancelled,” she said. “Once Gov. DeWine announced softball and sports could return again, I was excited and couldn’t wait to be around my teammates and just get back on the field and play the game I love.”
Steve Dillow, father of Addi and the Dusters’ head coach, echoed his players’ sentiments.
He also understood, though, that “the safety of my players and their parents is always my number-one concern”.
“It was disheartening for our girls because they work so hard year-round to not only succeed for our travel team, but to be the best they can for their school teams. Fortunately, we have four 2021 graduates and six 2022 graduates that at least get a chance to play their junior and senior seasons. Some 2020 graduates will never get a chance to play organized softball again. I know how active all of my girls are in all sports for their high schools, and my worry would be for them and how much it affected them physically and mentally of pretty much having to work out at home and improvise on ways to keep their competitive edge and physical condition,” he said. “My initial reaction was ‘let’s get back on the field’ as any coach would want. But travel ball is a little different than high school as the girls on the team pay to play. You wonder as a coach if all girls will travel, or if the parents are willing to go out of state to play.”
This summer, it’s safe to assume that these Dusters will play against anybody anywhere at anytime.
Just as long as the social distancing rules are in place.
“The (social distancing) guidelines are really easily followed and easy to execute,” said the coach. “Softball is an outside sport, so it’s rather easy to keep the distance and most parents at travel tournaments sit in lawn chairs under their own canopy, so they pretty much social distanced before we were introduced to that phrase.”
However, there are new rules.
Perry said players’ temperatures are taken before they head off to practice, and masks must be worn by both players and coaches.
At practices, the players can’t touch each other in the form of high-fives or handshakes, and each practice ends with a huddle — but no hand-touching — “Dusters”.
Lutz said it is taking some getting used to.
“Our practices have changed a lot with the precautions you have to follow. I hate not being able to high-five my teammates when they do something good or we make a good play. Also having to sit a distance from each other when you are in the dugout waiting to go hit or field is something we aren’t used to doing,” she said. “It’s a whole different experience than what our normal practices would look like.”
“During practice, we are all being very cautious to make sure we social distance. No more high-fives, handshakes, etc. You don’t realize how much you’ve taken something for granted until that privilege is taken away,” she said. “It’s definitely a huge change in the way we practice.”
But Coach Dillow said those changes haven’t stopped the Dusters’ competitiveness.
“We have done a lot of small group work in our practices up until this past Sunday. Pitchers and catchers work together. Infielders staying together and outfielders working together. We try to keep the girls from congregating in the dugout and keep them in a cage, at a hitting station, or in the outfield or infield,” he said. “Our practices have been high-energy due to the girls not being able to play high school ball. They are so ready to play and compete. A lot of bottled-up energy released in our two-and-half hour workouts.”
They will now release that energy into actual tournaments and games.
Alford said four of their five original tournaments have been cancelled, but since then some have been rescheduled — or even added.
Coach Dillow explained that with the cancellation of college showcases, the Dusters are competing in more regional-based tournaments against six to eight teams —instead of a 30-to-50 team entry list.
“Our coaches are doing a fantastic job at trying to get us involved with as many games, tournaments and exposures as we can get. For that I am very grateful. The majority of our weekends have been filled back up with games so hopefully our season will be somewhat normal,” said Alford.
And, hopefully, that season finishes what it starts.
Perry said the pandemic has changed the college recruiting process for most players, including her, as “players that want to play softball in college have had to make videos and send out more e-mails to college coaches so those coaches can see them.”
“Any subtle spike in the flare-up of COVID-19 will most definitely shut everything down again, including softball. If the health professionals find it necessary to indeed shut everything again, we would have to accept it, but I’m sure we wouldn’t be too thrilled about it,” said Dillow. “Our coaching staff works hard for our girls pertaining to the recruiting process, so again we would have to revert back to Zoom calls with college coaches, e-mails and workout videos from the girls to coaches, etc.”
Indeed, the Dusters were eager to put away their laptops and cellphones, and instead make good use of their bats and gloves.
“We created a four-week ‘Let’s get back to play’ workout for our team that included lifting, running, throwing, pitching, hitting and basically anything exercise-related where they score themselves a point for everything that they accomplish on the challenge,” said the coach. “Our first tournament is this coming weekend, and you can’t hide if you haven’t worked during the quarantined time off.”
Still, it’s definitely a whole new ballgame.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved