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Local youth sports leaders hope the state will allow their kids to get back on the field soon

COURTESY PHOTO - Two Wilsonville Youth Softball teams played at a tournament in Newberg last weekend.

This article was updated from its original version

When Wilsonville Little League President Michele Seal considers the possibility of resuming play during the COVID-19 pandemic — which has killed over 400,000 people worldwide and nearly 200 Oregonians — she acknowledges the health risks associated with the disease. But Seal also points to the costs of keeping kids cooped up with little extracurricular stimulation. Under the right circumstances, she believes the risks of playing ball are worth it.

"The benefits of that to me, as a parent, far outweigh the risk that's going on when proper precautions are taken," she said.

Spurred by the group Let Them Play!, which has over 25,000 members on Facebook, a groundswell of local youth sports advocates are lobbying the state to allow the resumption of youth sports, and Wilsonville coaches and youth sports representatives, Pamplin Media Group chatted with support this endeavor. Meanwhile, the state is proceeding with caution, not wanting to act hastily and facilitate more outbreaks.

"While we would like to give youth athletes and parents more certainty around this issue, especially given the positive mental and physical benefits sports can provide in times like these, this is unfortunately a case where the spread of coronavirus will dictate the timeline of when sports activities can resume, as well as how those activities will need to be modified for health and safety," said Charles Boyle, deputy communications director for the Office of Gov. Kate Brown, via email.

Why they want to return

Seal imposes screen-time limits in her household, which work well in normal times. But during the pandemic, when kids are away from friends and have little to do, enforcing such rules has been more challenging, she said.

"My kids say, 'Yeah but mom that's the only way to talk to friends is to be on Fortnite or whatever,'" Seal said.

Meanwhile, she said the interpersonal skills she's tried to cultivate, like looking a parent in the eye, shaking their hand and maintaining conversation, are falling by the wayside. Her kids develop these skills in large part through youth sports, she said.

All coaches interviewed also mentioned the mental health effects of the pandemic and not being able to play sports with their teams.

"The parents are stressed. The kids are stressed. Life is very different with not having an end to school and normal things," said Wilsonville Youth Sports President Janis Sanford. "The best treatment for that would be getting to get out and grow in their sport and be around teammates."

Kenley Whittaker, a 13-year-old Wilsonville resident and a three-sport athlete, said staying in touch with friends and remaining healthy and active have been difficult during the pandemic. Normally, she maintains these relationships at practices.

"Sports are a big part of who I am. I love all sports and to suddenly be in quarantine for three-plus months has been challenging but necessary for Wilsonville and Oregon to recover quickly," she said via email.

Still, while the rate of serious illness among children is extremely low, Sanford is worried about kids passing the disease on to family members and the possibility of the virus affecting kids even after they have recovered from an initial spell.

But Sanford and others want parents and coaches to choose whether their kids can play rather than be dictated by the state.

"Right now it doesn't feel like it's an option. It feels like there are very few people making the rules and the rest of us are following them," Seal said.

Already back at it

The crisp crack of the bat might not have been heard much in Wilsonville last weekend but was much more common in Newberg.

Clackamas County is currently in Phase 1 of reopening, meaning crowds of 25 or more people are not allowed and the county will proceed to other phases in lockstep with Multnomah and Washington Counties.

Meanwhile, more rural counties like Yamhill are already in Phase 2. Under less stringent guidelines, some sports teams in those counties have resumed play. Knowing this, the Wilsonville Youth Sports 12-U and 10-U softball teams traveled to Newberg last weekend to compete in tournaments.

"Everything had been on hold and I think folks were hoping to get back to something normal or whatever the new normal is," said 12-U coach Preston Van Meter about the decision to play. "Parents were interested. Some parents chose to sit out. A lot of parents were saying 'We have to do something. My daughter has to get out of the house.' There was a strong group of parents committed to wanting to move forward with a season."

Van Meter said precautions taken included taking players temperatures before play, requiring parents to sit in the outfield spread out rather than in the stands, players wearing their own gear and masks, and being seperated by 6 feet in the dugout.

"NAFA (North American Fastpitch Association) has done a lot of work to maintain safety measures and make sure we don't become a problem and these tournaments can continue," Van Meter said.

And the softball coach said players listened more intently to instruction and were more enthusiastic than normal, recalling that they were even relishing the game they lost handily.

"They said 'It's awesome to be out there though.' The enthusiasm for being out on the field, they've been so positive," Van Meter said.

Wilsonville Little League has not scheduled any tournaments but Seal said they might do so if the county enters Phase 2. For now, they're planning to host a baseball camp, where they will form pods around the field for kids to practice skills like corralling ground balls and pop flys, soon.

"The biggest challenge for us is shared equipment. Most kids have their own equipment but the biggest thing is baseballs. We're going to sanitize baseballs. Each group will use a bucket of balls and then the balls will go away for 72 hours (to ensure they aren't carrying the virus)," Seal said.

Different challenges for different sports

Casey Carpenter, the director for Wilsonville Youth Football, acknowledges the inherent difficulties associated with playing football during the pandemic — namely that physical contact between players is guaranteed. Contact sports are currently prohibited even in counties cleared for Phase 2.

"The standard 6 feet of social distancing, you can't apply that to any standard or modified rules (of football)," Carpenter said.

Wilsonville Youth Sports follows OSAA and Tualatin Valley Youth Football League direction for resumption of play. And these organizations act based on guidance from the state.

"The decisions our office makes regarding COVID-19 are being guided by science and health outcomes, and the current recommendation we have received from health experts is that it is not yet safe for Oregon's youth to return to participating in contact sports, without risking spreading the disease throughout our communities," Boyle, the governor's spokesperson, said.

Baseball and softball, however, don't require nearly as much physical contact and coaches believe it can be safe if leagues have enough resources so that they can continuously use fresh balls and if players don't share equipment.

"I think it's certainly one of the safer sports," Seal said.

Though he's more leery of letting his kids wrestle this winter if the COVID-19 situation doesn't improve by then, due to the even more intimate nature of the sport, Carpenter believes local youth football teams should be allowed to return to play.

"I would probably let my kids play. I also believe that everyone has the right to choose what's best for their kid," he said.

Boyle acknowledged that the resumption of youth sports is in some ways more challenging than college and professional sports because of the lack of resources leagues have to keep players safe. And the state hasn't approved guidelines for pro and college sports to return yet either.

"For example, collegiate and professional teams have the resources and facilities to provide for the health screening, COVID-19 testing, and isolation of athletes, coaches, and staff — measures that would not currently be realistic for high school and youth teams," he said.

Whittaker, for her part, wondered whether his teammates would uniformly follow safety protocols, them being teenagers. Still, she would feel comfortable returning to play if her coaches have a plan for keeping players safe.

"I personally think that I can distance myself from my teammates during and after practice even if they are not going to follow all safety requirements," she said. "However, there should never be any pressure on a family or player that doesn't want to go back to training right now because this is a big decision."

In a previous version of this article, Kenley Whittaker's gender was misidentified. She is a female.

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