Youth sports leagues managing uncertainty amid COVID-19 pandemic

Members of the Bradley-Bourbonnais 8-10 year-old division All-Star team rush to greet a leaping Liam Martin as they celebrate their Little League state championship at Slater Field in Bourbonnais last summer. While the Little League World Series was canceled for the first time ever on Thursday, some leagues, such as Bradley-Bourbonnais, haven’t quite given up on returning to the field this summer.

Many were shocked when Little League International announced Thursday that there would be no Little League World Series this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s because it will be the first time ever that the Little League World Series will not be played since the organization began 73 year’s ago in 1947.

The recent decision by Little League officials has since made an impact on decision-making for youth sports across the country. With this global pandemic now making its way into May, it now has youth league officials all over scrambling to make the decision on whether or not to cancel the spring sports season for their respective leagues.

Thousands of youth leagues are having to make difficult decisions in the upcoming weeks. And our local area leagues are no different.

Brian Zirkle, coach who runs House of Sportz, a travel baseball and softball program located in Kankakee, has already has to cancel his teams travel plans for the month of May.

“Through the month of May, everything is canceled,” Zirkle said. “There are a couple of tournaments down in the St. Louis area, Iowa and Indiana that may happen by the end of the month, but nothing remotely serious.”

Zirkle has been monitoring his team’s situation by taking advice from both the United States Specialty Sports Association, one of a handful of different club sports sanctioning bodies. For now, it looks like House of Sportz is still on just a temporary leave with hopes of starting back up June.

As for soccer team Legion FC, another travel club in Kankakee county, they weren’t as lucky. The Illinois Women’s Soccer League made the decision for Legion FC to cancel its entire women’s spring season.

The men’s season on the other hand has yet to be canceled. That decision will have to be made by May 18th.

With that being said, it’s been hard for Rose Aviles, coach of Legion FC, to help keep her team involved without any face-to-face contact.

“It’s such a learning curve for coaches and players. I’ve had to adapt the way I do things,” Aviles said. “Playing outside with your friends has turned into weekly Zoom meetings with your teammates. We’re still trying to build that team camaraderie, but it’s kind of hard to do without being able to go to practice, games and tournaments. We do weekly Zoom meetings for an hour and cover team goals for the week. We’ve had to get creative and keep kids interested.”

Legion FC wasn’t the only local soccer club to have to cancel its season. Wilmington Soccer Club president Kevin Cavenaile also had to make the difficult decision to cancel its spring soccer season. Wilmington is in a league with several other towns, who collectively made the difficult decision.

“It was quite a disappointment, we had quite a few new people reaching one of the highest springs seasons we’ve had in a while,” Cavenaile said. “So we were really looking forward to getting the season started. We held out as long as we could, we were going to try and play but they kept pushing the dates back and with our insurance not being able to be provided we were unable to have a season.”

Luckily for the parents of Wilmington Soccer Club they will be getting a full refund if they don’t want to use their payment toward the fall season. Additionally, Cavenaile has pondered the possibly holding a late summer tournament for those who will unfortunately miss the spring season.

“We are looking at the possibility at a mid-summer to late-summer camp or something like that to try and fill in that gap for those kids who didn’t get to play prior to the fall season,” Cavenaile said.

Travel leagues haven’t been the only leagues affected by this pandemic. Youth baseball and softball have endured a lot too. Nuscotomek Youth Baseball League, Momence Youth Baseball and Softball League, as well as both the Little League and youth softball programs in Bradley-Bourbonnais are among several recreational leagues that have had plans altered.

Luke Shepard, president of Nuscotomek Youth Baseball League and Aaron Walk, president of Momence Youth Baseball and Softball, have both elected to cancel its upcoming seasons after many valiant efforts trying to salvage the season.

“We have already canceled our season,” Walk said. “There is just no way with not being able to do anything until hopefully June that we can fit a season in with youth football starting in July.”

Shepard has been dealing closely with Walk, who is also the president of the All-City Baseball Association, on some possible solutions given the tough news.

“We’ve been dealing with the All-City Baseball Association,” Shepard said. “For the PONY organization, we’ve already agreed to cancel the season, but that doesn’t mean each league can’t do a little something if the governor relaxes (the stay-at-home order).

“To do a whole season, with nine or 10 different leagues where we play each other all the time, to work with that and keep trying to re-do the scheduling, you just can’t do that,” he added. “I give kudos to Aaron [for trying to keep changing the schedule] … it’s just too much to continue to do so.”

Aside from the league cancelation, another obstacle in any hopes of late-summer ball would be the Kankakee Park District’s cancelation and closing of facilities. The park district owns two of the three fields that Nuscotomek uses on a regular basis.

Bradley-Bourbonnais youth softball and baseball on the other hand, have yet to make a decision regarding its spring seasons.

“We have not made the decision to cancel the season yet,” John Lazaro, president of Bradley-Bourbonnais Little League said. “We are moving on and pushing back as far as we can so hopefully we can get some type of season in later in the summer or fall.”

Truth be told, many league officials will be waiting to hear whether or not Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker will lift the stay-at-home order in the upcoming weeks. That will be the ultimate deciding factor in possibly re-opening youth sports across the Kankakee area and beyond.

“The biggest thing we got to do May 6 if we are still on, and right now we are still on, is we are going to get these teams divided up within our organization,” Mike Lawrence, president of Bradley-Bourbonnais Youth Softball League said. “And then we will get that word out so that we will still be on wait or hold until we get another word from the governor.”

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