Shendendehowa softball senior Riley Higgins lost her final high school season to the coronavirus pandemic. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to play travel ball this summer, either, as the lockdown dragged on.
“It’s been a rough couple of months not being able to see my friends and my teammates,” said Higgins, a catcher and third baseman.
She stayed in shape with her younger sister, Kelsey, a Shen freshman, by playing catch and hitting into a net in their backyard. Eventually, they were able to work out by themselves at a field on Clifton Common.
This week, Higgins made another step toward normalcy by taking batting practice this week. The Miss Shen Softball program received permission from Clifton Park to open its batting cage.
“Oh my god, it was amazing,” said Higgins, who plays on Miss Shen’s 18-under travel team. “I hadn’t hit off live pitching in a good three months so it was a little weird just to get back into the swing of things, but after a couple of hits, it was fine.”
Before long, Miss Shen Softball will be playing games, like youth sports programs throughout the Capital Region. Gov. Andrew C. Cuomo announced Sunday “low-risk” youth sports – including baseball, softball, gymmastics, field hockey, cross country and crew – could resume on July 6 in regions that have entered phase three of reopening.
Phase three began in the Capital Region on Wednesday with crowds of 25 allowed to gather. Miss Shen president John Belkevich is waiting for clearance from the town and county to begin practicing on the Clifton Common fields.
And Miss Shen is scheduled to return to game action on July 10, hosting a tournament for 16-under and 18-under squads that will draw teams from throughout the Capital Region. The recreation season has already been canceled because of COVID-19, but there’s enough time left for travel ball.
Higgins said she’s “a little nervous” about COVID-19 but just wants to gets back on the field with her teammates again.
“We want to get the kids out there,” Belkevich said. “They’ve waited long enough. They’re going crazy. They want to get out there and play.”
Not without precautions. Belkevich is getting ready to post signs with social-distancing guidelines around the fields. Only three players and a coach might be allowed in the dugout at one time with the rest of the team outside it.
Miss Shen has bought about 40 gallons of hand sanitizer for its players to use. Players don’t have to wear masks on the field, but are strongly encouraged to wear them to and from the field. Players who are showing any flu-like symptoms are told not to come to the ballpark.
More problematic is the state guideline that allows two visitors per child at youth games, Belkevich said.
“That’s the part that we’re struggling with right now, is how far can we go,” he said. “If you see a family coming in with four people and a player, do you tell them they have to leave? What do you do with that? We’re trying to stick with the please cooperate kind of conversation and signage and hope for the best.”
Schenectady Little League is scheduled to begin practicing July 6 and start play a week later. League president Nicole Peters said baseballs will be sanitized after every inning, equipment after every game. Players can’t share equipment and anyone without his own bat or glove will be assigned one for the season. Players will use the bleachers, so fans will have to bring their own chairs and sit near the outfield.
The concession stands won’t cook any hot food and everything sold will be pre-packaged. They’ll try to use only one of the three fields available to cut down on the crowds.
Schenectady Little League is also taking players from other towns in its district that have decided not to play this summer. A scholarship fund has been set up for children who can’t afford to register because of the pandemic.
“I think that when everything comes to fruition and we’re at that first crack of the bat, it’s going to be an amazing feeling,” Peters said. “It’s kind of a break from what became the new normal. It’s just nice to see something that’s enjoyable come back and the kids be able to participate and actually be kids.”
msingelais@timesunion • 518-454-5509 • @MarkSingelais