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Prepping for a new norm, softball players and coaches are just happy to be swinging the bats again
SOFTBALL

Prepping for a new norm, softball players and coaches are just happy to be swinging the bats again

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Club softball teams will be able to hit the fields in Nebraska when the calendar turns to June.

Luke Olson admits, he probably knows more about Oklahoma’s governor than he’d ever imagine.

Olson, who coaches club softball in the Nebraska Thunder program, has been keeping a close watch on several states as the country tries to work its way out of a pandemic.

Are these states relaxing health restrictions? Are tournaments still on? What are the guidelines for youth sports and tournaments?

“One of the first tournaments we were looking into was this PGF qualifier we had at the end of May in Oklahoma,” Olson said. “I'm Google searching these articles about Oklahoma's government and what their governor is saying about youth sports, which is something I never thought I'd be doing in my life.

“So it was a little odd just because of that.”

Olson is not alone. Most club softball teams in Nebraska play in a lot of out-of-state tournaments. In addition to getting teams “softball ready” for the summer — baseball and softball teams can practice outside starting Monday — coaches and program directors are trying to keep up with schedule changes.

Just this week a big tournament in Boulder, Colorado — which attracts about 140 teams — was canceled amid COVID-19 concerns. That’s leaving programs like Nebraska Gold scrambling to find a replacement tournament or games.

“We're just kind of playing it by ear and doing the best we can, connecting with local organizations that come June 18 if we have games throughout the week to get these kids ready, that's what we're going to do,” said Nebraska Gold director Larry Swift.

You won’t find coaches and players complaining, though. Far from it. They’re just happy to be playing this summer.

Many teams will be getting together to practice beginning Monday. Teams can start playing games in Nebraska beginning June 18.

“We’re definitely excited to get back to work,” said Olson, who coaches the Thunder’s 18-and-under team. “We’re excited as coaches. They’re probably more excited as players, getting back at it, even at practices.”

Olson said his team will be practicing Monday. Swift said the Gold teams will hit the practice fields Tuesday, taking the necessary precautions as outlined by Gov. Pete Ricketts. That includes individual hand sanitizers for players, and communicating with parents.

“(We’re) informing them this is a crazy situation, (and) if they're not comfortable with their daughter coming to practice right now, that's OK. No hard feelings,” Swift said. “Every family is dealing with this differently. The same goes for playing games. When they're ready and it's on their time, that's when we'll get going with them.”

Some club softball teams have already hit the fields in other states, including Oklahoma, which was one of the first states to relax restrictions.

Despite not having practicing as a full team, Sam Cromer’s Thunder 15s team played in a highly competitive tournament in Shawnee, Oklahoma, over the Memorial Day weekend.

Sure, there was some rust, but Cromer said he was impressed with how the team performed, and “honestly, we were just happy to be out there.”

The adjustments go beyond the field of play. Parents had to sign waivers before the first game, there was hand sanitizer readily available, teams had to use their own softballs (game officials didn’t touch them), and there were no handshakes at the end of each game.

Softball players will have to adjust how they approach recruiting, too.

The NCAA has extended the dead period to July 31, so the droves of college coaches seen at softball tournaments will be missing. Instead, players may need to rely on more tools like videos.

“I think it's even more important for our kids to being able to connect with these coaches through Sports Recruits-type applications,” Swift said. “I've gotten different reactions from different coaches about what's more powerful. Is game film more powerful? Is practice film more powerful? We're going to be implementing some things where we will take practice film to share with these coaches just to get as much as we can in front of them.”

Some tournaments are expected to have online software for players to create profiles and game clips to share with coaches.

It will be a new norm for sure. But softball is softball, and players and coaches are looking forward to getting some swings in.

“It will be a short (summer) schedule, just with some of the stuff getting canceled, but to some degree there's a part of it that I think will be nice because players will have time to focus on skills development side of stuff and things like that,” Olson said. “Obviously they'll still play a lot of games, but I'm looking forward to getting back into everything.”

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Reach Clark Grell at 402-473-2639 or cgrell@journalstar.com. On Twitter at @LJSSportsGrell.

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