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With extensive safety guidelines in place, the Tigers return to the diamond

PMG FILE PHOTO - The NHS Tigers will return to the diamond this summer in a condensed Babe Ruth league.

When the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the spring sports season, Newberg High School baseball eyed a return to play some time in the summer. That time is now as the Tigers return to the field for a summer season in a condensed Babe Ruth league.

Coaches didn't expect to play out any semblance of a varsity schedule or to return to the normal world their players pitched, hit and ran bases in before the virus became a part of their everyday lives. Trey Watt, the second-year coach of the Tigers, went through a number of options for his team from American Legion to Babe Ruth to independent play.

With between 45 and 50 kids out for club baseball this summer – nearly half of them incoming freshmen – Newberg started 18-and-under and 16-and-under teams, both of which have been practicing and scrimmaging against each other since June 11. They haven't played games against other schools yet, but the safety precautions in place in the lead-up to those potential games have been extensive.

Players are split up into position groups and can't get close to or interact with other groups during practices. Temperature checks and sanitization are now part of the daily routine at the ballpark.

"We probably go even a bit overboard with the precautions and contact tracing," Watt said with a laugh. "We take everybody's temperature every day when they come into the ballpark, and our sanitization process has been really consistent. We just have to be diligent and show the kids that the different measures are really important."

Players social distance from one another during workouts and wear "neck gaiters" that cover the area from their necks up over their noses. The coverings can be wetted to keep the players cool during hot summer days, all while aiming to prevent transmission of COVID-19.

"If a baseball goes from the outfield to the infield to the pitcher, we'll toss that ball, sanitize it and throw a new one in," Watt said. "In workouts, each group has different marked baseballs for their position groups during workouts and they can only use those balls. You can't change your catch partner for catch, either."

There will be no parents in the stands cheering on their kids or nagging umpires at NHS baseball games this summer, which Watt said is part of the experience he will miss. One bright spot, however, is that Newberg seniors who lost their final varsity season due to COVID-19 were honored with a "senior night" of sorts earlier this month.

If all goes well and they get the go-ahead from school officials, the Tigers will play against teams from other schools while continuing to follow strict safety guidelines. If they aren't approved to play other squads, they'll just keep working out with each other.

"I'm confident that we will have games against other teams, but we have to make sure we're following all the safety pieces," Watt said. "There are no spectators allowed at scrimmages, games or practices so we stream everything live on our YouTube channel for the parents and college coaches who are looking to recruit."

On the first day of workouts, one player had a 100-degree temperature before entering the facility and was sent home immediately, only to find out it was just a reaction to medication. That player ended up testing negative for COVID-19 and came back to practice the next day. Overall, the safety protocols in place have been reassuring for Watt and company, who are operating out of an abundance of caution during this time.

If a Newberg player were to test positive for COVID-19, their entire workout group would be required to quarantine for two weeks and all get tested for the virus. The rest of the team would keep plugging away until those players returned.

"The last thing we want to do is negatively impact the school year or negatively impact someone's life," Watt said. "We want to make sure we're doing everything correctly and that everybody is feeling good about our following of the guidelines."

Other schools around the state are engaging in similar practices this summer with hopes that they can play actual games. But everything is still tenuous given the uncertain nature of the pandemic and the risks involved with playing sports, even ones with minimal person-to-person contact like baseball.

Schools in the Portland-metro area have shut down sports activities completely. Watt said he is grateful that Yamhill County is already in Phase 2 of its reopening and is can start safely attempting to play sports again.

"There are a lot of schools in southern Oregon that are in similar phases who are doing the same thing," he said. "We are so lucky compared to a lot of schools within 50 miles of the Portland area. To be able to have a baseball experience for our kids is really great."


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