The Legion baseball season was canceled in May due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it would take some creativity to have any organized youth baseball in Alexandria without that support from the state and national level.
That creativity is coming into play right now. Jake Munsch is the head coach for the Alexandria varsity baseball team in high school and also during the Legion summer season. He helped organize a Lakes Area Independent summer baseball season for kids in grades 9-12 to give athletes a chance to get back on the field under many pandemic-related safety guidelines.
“It’s awesome just to be back,” soon-to-be-senior Elijah Holthaus said after the first practice of the summer on June 23. “Obviously, we didn’t get our school ball season in, and this is a lot different. It’s not like Legion, but it’s going to be fun to get used to.”
Teams from Alexandria are broken up into three age levels -- players in grade 9 last school year, players in 10th and 11th grade and then this past spring’s graduating seniors, with the addition of a few former graduates to form that team. Practices take place Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays each week, and coaches between the three teams include Munsch, Greg Toivonen, Chris Koep, Lee Backhaus and Steve Radtke.
“We know that consistency is important when it comes to being successful,” Munsch said. “We wanted to make sure that we were always researching what we could do to be as consistent as possible for providing kids an opportunity to play. We can get a lot done this summer when it comes to teaching fundamentals. We’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes, keeping in contact with (Alexandria Activities Director) Ben (Kvidt) at the high school, just keeping up to date with all the protocols. Finally, we were able to get out here, and we jumped right on it.”
Plenty of protocols
Players went through drills on Tuesday afternoon that were interrupted with frequent breaks.
“Remember to sanitize,” Toivonen instructed one of his players who went to get a drink from his own water bottle in the bleachers. Players were reminded to stay spread out in the field.
“It’s a little weird in the sense that you got to be apart because we kind of tend to group together,” senior Brady McCoy said. “You just have to be mindful to stay apart, and then those extra breaks, we’ll get used to that as the season goes on.”
The Minnesota Department of Health gave the go-ahead to resume games and scrimmages on June 24 for outdoor sports, but that did come with a caveat.
The MDH recommends a phased-in approach for the reopening of activities. Programs are encouraged to begin with intrasquad scrimmages on June 24, shift to playing teams at a local level two weeks later and then consider expanding to games played against teams beyond the local community two weeks after that.
“The way I interpret it right now is you have to play local until at least July 22,” Munsch said. “We’re still doing some research on that. We said from the very beginning of this that we’re not traveling and playing games. If we have to do intrasquad scrimmages with our own kids, we’ll be fine with that.”
The protocols put in place by the Alexandria Youth Baseball Association include six feet of social distancing as much as possible, and no spitting or chewing sunflower seeds. Players must use the third-base bleachers instead of the dugouts at Knute Nelson Memorial Ballpark. Sanitizing breaks are included often, and temperature checks are held prior to each practice.
Simply put, coaches, players and their families have to be incredibly flexible to make this summer season work, and restrictions are frequently changing. Athletes cannot share equipment, so players bring their own helmets and bats.
“We’re making sure we are caught up to date with everything that’s going on and making sure we’re following all the rules, giving these kids an opportunity to get together as teammates,” Munsch said. “That’s probably the most important part is socializing as friends and providing a little baseball.”
A competitive schedule up in the air
Alexandria’s summer schedule through the league does consist of communities that make up the program’s normal Legion baseball district.
A U19 schedule through July consists of teams from Moorhead, Perham, Fergus Falls, Detroit Lakes and Alexandria. A U17 season for the younger age groups includes the two Alexandria teams, along with Moorhead, Perham, Fergus Falls and Detroit Lakes.
A season-ending tournament is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 8-9. How much of that schedule each program can actually travel to play in is still very much in doubt as teams with school coaches running them have to abide by a strict set of guidelines.
“I think it would be really fun to get to do a tournament,” McCoy said of the potential to play that two-day event in August. “That’s kind of what we look forward to with Legion are those tournaments. Everyone will be super pumped up to do it, and it should be great competition.”
If the Alexandria teams are not able to play other programs from different communities, Munsch said he will be fine with rotating games between the three Alexandria teams.
“If people are interpreting this as kids are going to go play and winning is the top priority and only a certain amount of kids are going to get playing time, they have the wrong impression,” Munsch said. “This is more about teaching fundamentals, developing our team and just working on the things we know will help them be successful.”
Munsch anticipated that registration numbers for the voluntary league might be low, but almost 60 kids signed up. That shows him that players are eager to get back on the field in whatever format that might look like.
Tuesday’s practice for the 10th and 11th-grade group had the feel of an early-season high school practice with plenty of fundamental work being done through drills. Yes, players want to get games in against other towns yet this year, but they seem to know the chance to practice is an equally important part to future success.
“We’re hopefully going to have the experience of games at the end if things keep opening up,” Holthaus said. “I just want to get completely prepared for that, and since it’s shorter, it’s just working our butts off to be ready for next year. The opportunity we have to do this is nice, just because we’ll have more experience for next season.”