Sports writer Chapin Jewell looks at how the sports world may be changed by the ongoing pandemic.
By Chapin Jewell
Along with his brother Chad, Shane Corwell is co-owner and operator of the Wheelhouse Academy baseball and softball training facility in Fort Ashby. With current expansions and improvements under way, that baseball and softball part will extend to virtually every sport.
As the Wheelhouse works with athletes young and old, you might say that Corwell has his finger on the pulse of what is happening in the sports world.
So, what is happening? Well, locally, you can say that very slowly, signs are pointing to the fact that some sports are on the cusp of returning, if not now, at least by the end of June. Wheelhouse itself re-opened on Tuesday, allowing customers to rent time in their batting cages, with social distancing rules and sanitation protocols put into place. Still, it was something, the first sign that sports are indeed making a comeback; things will just look differently, especially at first.
“They are already playing tournaments in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and both Carolinas,” Corwell stated. “Our first tournament was scheduled for New Jersey; we were supposed to be there next weekend. That’s a definite no-go. But our younger teams, 12 and under, they are going to play the majority of their schedule because they were just going to Bridgeport and regional places like that in West Virginia. Still, some tournaments are getting pushed back to later in the summer.”
With sports already somewhat in full swing in the south and soon returning to the Mountain State, does that mean things have returned to normal? Not so fast. While absolutely the slow roll-out of sports again means a sense of normalcy is forthcoming, the reality is that the return of sports comes with certain safety changes, with things looking different than they would have just a few short months ago.
Corwell, for example, talks about changes that have been made in some of the baseball and softball tournaments taking place, and those scheduled to return shortly.
“The biggest modification has been taking the home plate umpire and placing them behind the pitcher’s mound at the lower levels. Other areas are requiring the home plate umpire and the catcher to wear a mask since they are within the six feet rule,” Corwell explained. “But there’s so much that gets sticky with it. Suppose you just hit a base hit and now you’re standing on first base, next to the first baseman. Are you going to have to go get a mask?”
“The bigger fields have a luxury of expansive space. At the littlest levels, one modification they’ve made, and this is contrary to what you typically want, is that they are letting the littlest ones go sit with their parents rather than in a dugout during the game. Then again, there are states that probably aren’t doing much,” Corwell stated.
For those in high school playing travel ball and looking to get recruited by colleges, the summer travel and club season is traditionally very important. With current restrictions placed on college coaches related to the covid-19 pandemic, however, the landscape is entirely different right now.
“Right now, the biggest issue for those of us involved in elite-level travel ball, with high school athletes, is that the NCAA has extended the dead period to Aug. 1, which means that college coaches cannot be at tournaments for baseball and softball. It makes zero sense to invest in tournaments far from home when college coaches will not be there. That’s the biggest reason to go to these tournaments, to play in front of college coaches.”
With these changes, there will be tough decisions ahead, particularly for multi-sport athletes who might be pulled in different directions as one season gives way to another.
“The toughest decision is going to come for these multiple sport high school kids. You may have a kid that’s a better baseball player than he is in other sports. For them to get seen in baseball, they almost have to play in fall tournaments. That’s just the type of decisions that these kids are going to have to make,” Corwell explained.
Everyone in the sports world has thus far been affected by the cancellation of activities and/or restrictions put in place for what can or can’t be done. From Little League all the way up to professional and amateur adult leagues. One thing is for certain, at the college level, there has been a major impact, one sure to be felt even long after things return to the new normal. One area hugely affected for collegiate sports is budgeting.
According to Corwell, “One of the things you are seeing is budget cuts in college, with schools doing what they can to save money due to ravaged budgets. For example, my son Nick plays college baseball at Ohio Valley University, they’ve already cut 10 games from their schedule, seemingly to reduce travel expenses. East Carolina University for example, just announced that they were cutting four sports programs entirely.”
Wheelhouse of course specializes in individual training for athletes looking to hone their skills, in addition to also sponsoring elite-level travel ball teams. With respect to individual training, be it at Wheelhouse, someplace else, or just at home, Corwell sees the importance of individual and small group training sessions becoming hugely important as more and more restrictions in terms of time and social distancing are placed on sports teams.
“Where we are now, and the way we’re going to react to this pandemic at Wheelhouse, I feel down the road individual and group training classes are going to become important. There will be time restrictions with when and how people can practice. With that limitation in team practice time, there will be limited time to work on honing individual skills because practice time will have to be so focused on team activities and interactions,” Corwell explained.
“With what we have with the strength lab being built and all the renovations to the gym, we’re going to be able to offer the availability to train and practice in multiple sports. Everything from baseball, softball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, pickle ball, soccer, etc.,” Corwell stated. “That’s another thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought in terms of challenges, there simply are not available places and fields to play right now. The schools and parks have all been closed down.”
The Potomac Valley Phenoms travel basketball organization is also set to take to the courts very soon, with tournaments slated to begin at the end of June. While basketball play will resume, there are definitely rules and regulations in play that will need to be followed.
Travis Holliday, a Phenoms’ parent, explains what parents have been told, “Spectators are to wear masks and get temperature checks before entering the gym. Players will sanitize hands before the game and when checking in and out of the game. The ball will also be sanitized every five minutes.”
Missy Clark, Phenoms’ parent and member of the Phenoms’ board, further explains what will be expected as the teams prepare for tournament play, “We will follow the state protocols for gathering sizes. In Maryland, that’s currently 10 or less. In West Virginia, it’s 25 or less. Coaches will implement safety procedures such as having hand sanitizer available, having kids bring their own balls if they can, etc.”
According to Clark, with information they’ve received from tournament directors, it looks as though spectators will be required to wear masks and disinfect their hands at a sanitizing station before entering the court area. Spectators will not be permitted even to pay with cash to enter the event, they must pre-pay in advance with a credit card. Families will be expected to maintain six feet of distance between each other in the stands.
So sports are definitely returning much to the delight of participants, coaches, fans and parents. Obviously, safety remains a top concern moving forward and restrictions are being put in place to ensure things are as safe as they can be, while still allowing for somewhat normal game play.
“I think the biggest and best thing that’s going to come out of this is people are just going to be thankful to play again. We’re going to reset and think, it’s just really good that my kid gets to play sports again,” Corwell stated.