Donny Overholser wants to get back to baseball.
Since Lee County reopened its parks almost three weeks ago, the president of Fort Myers American Youth Baseball league has been at Sam Fleischman Park seven days a week, up to 12 hours a day. A volunteer for more than 50 years, Overholser opens the fields in the morning and schedules their use, assigning the diamonds to groups of fewer than 10 people in 90-minute increments.
However, the hardest work comes on Tuesday mornings. Overholser attends every Lee County Commissioners meeting petitioning the board to loosen restrictions enough to let teams practice. He’s also written letters to Gov. Ron DeSantis asking the same.
“I’m going hoarse,” Overholser said. “I just keep going and asking and asking and asking. I just want to play ball.”
With school closed until at least August due to the coronavirus, high school sports are done for this year. Now, as summer approaches, youth sports are left awaiting their fate.
This is the time of year youth baseball and softball leagues would be in full gear, getting ready for all-star tournaments. Club volleyball, soccer and basketball also would be in action, preparing for statewide and national events. With kids out of school, June is a busy season for travel teams in all sports.
But all that is on hold. Youth sports organizations across Southwest Florida are left wondering if – or when – they’ll be able to play again.
Opening the parks
After weeks of being shut down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, athletic fields across the state came to life recently when Phase 1 of Florida’s reopening plan began. Lee County opened recreation facilities on April 29, while Collier followed suit on May 4.
Public parks in Collier and Lee counties allow groups of nine or fewer to use their fields so long as they obey social distancing guidelines. However, organized team practices are not allowed.
“We are in discussions with our sports partners on limitations to the fields currently,” Collier County parks and recreation director Barry Williams said. “We’re encouraging small group play, skills training, but no organized league games or practices at this time. The National Recreation and Parks Association is an organization we belong to and are an accredited parks and recreation agency through their accreditation process, who are recommending these guidelines currently until community stabilization of the virus has occurred.”
Both counties are following the rules and regulations put forth by the state.
“We know Lee County facilities are important to the leagues and are currently developing plans for the coming summer season,” Lee County government spokesman Tim Engstrom said.
Youth leagues shut down in mid-March when the parks and gyms were closed. The majority of sports organizations play in city- and county-owned parks, and they must obey the government’s rules.
Phase 2 of the Reopen Florida Task Force would allow groups of up to 50 people to gather. That could allow for sports practices, even games. However, DeSantis has not said when Phase 2 will take effect.
“We’re all on hold pending guidance from the city and county,” Greater Naples Little League president Micaela Acres said. “As frustrating as it is for (sports organizers), it’s even more frustrating for the families and players.”
Youth baseball and softball leagues were a few weeks into their seasons when play was halted. Without knowing when they can start up again, league officials are weighing their options.
Little League International and Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth League, the national organizations for which most local youth baseball and softball teams play, already have canceled their regional and national tournaments for this summer. That means no Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
However, the leagues have said teams can hold league play or statewide tournaments if allowed by their local governments.
Baseball and softball typically wrap up league play in May. They try to avoid playing into the summer to avoid the heat and Florida’s rainy season.
However, local leagues are considering resuming league play when they are allowed to get back on the field, depending on when that is. That could mean playing into July and August, which could interfere with the Fall ball season that begins in September.
Hitting the road
Summer is also the primary time for travel or club teams.
Dan Mills runs the Fort Myers Fillies, a fastpitch softball club with 12-and-under and 18-and-under teams. The teams, particularly the 18U group, travel to play in a variety of college showcase tournaments throughout the summer.
With the tournaments being held in different cities each enforcing different rules, Mills wonders what the Fillies’ schedule will look like this summer. That’s if they have a schedule at all.
“You have to get city and county officials to allow teams to play on the fields,” Mills said. “Then you have teams coming in from all over the country. Is a county going to allow that? That’s where the challenge will be.”
The 18U Fillies qualified for the USA Softball national tournament in Tennessee this summer. They’re supposed to go to Jacksonville in June. Both trips are in doubt.
The club doesn’t have any events in Lee County this summer. The Fillies’ entire schedule depends on what other cities open which fields and when.
With the current rules for Lee County, Mills and other coaches have been doing individual work with Fillies players and training small groups when they can.
One of the questions surrounding youth sports is if parents will feel comfortable letting their children play as the country continues to fight the coronavirus. Overholser and Acres both said their leagues could see fewer players if they start up and some families choose to sit out.
However, Mills said his team is ready to go, and he expects tournaments would go on as planned if allowed to.
“Everybody wants to play, and the tournament directors want to have (their events),” Mills said. “I don’t feel having travel softball tournaments is a risk to the community or a risk to us. I feel good about it moving forward.”
More than diamond sports
Aside from baseball and softball, other sports are waiting to see when kids can get back to action.
The Optimist Club of Naples has more than 1,800 participants combined in its youth soccer and golf programs. The state’s stay-at-home order came one week into the soccer season, which was scheduled to run until May 15.
Optimist president John Dina, who runs the soccer program, said the league discussed extending the season if fields reopen. However, Dina doesn’t expect that to happen soon enough to save the season.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” Dina said. “I doubt the fields will open up in June. I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Optimist already has canceled its youth golf for the summer.
The next concern in the club’s travel soccer teams. Tryouts were scheduled for mid-May but have been pushed back to at least June 1. The Optimist Club belongs to the Florida Youth Soccer Association, which has said its teams must wait until 14 days after the state fully reopens the fields to begin playing.
The Collier County Lacrosse Association had to cut its season short. The league playoffs were scheduled for April.
Mark Klym is on the CCLA board and also runs the Faceoff Club of Naples, which puts on youth lacrosse clinics in the spring and fall. The spring session runs May to July, but Faceoff had to cancel the spring because it uses the field at Naples High School, and Collier County Public Schools facilities are closed until July 1 at the earliest.
While outdoor sports can at least practice in small groups, indoor sports still are waiting. As of Friday, gyms were still closed in Florida.
USA South Volleyball, a competitive club based in South Fort Myers, would have ended its season in April. Right now the teams would be preparing for USA Volleyball state and regional tournaments as well as the AAU National Championships.
Like organizers of all sports, USA South director Charlie Castillo is waiting on word from the governor. He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to open his gym and how many players he’ll be allowed to have inside.
“So much is in the air right now,” Castillo said. “We’re planning for seven different outcomes. In the meantime, we’ve done everything we can to make sure our facility is clean and safe for when our families get back.”
USA South is in the unique position that it owns its own facility. Castillo does not have to get permission from the city or county or school systems to use their gyms.
The local club was scheduled to send teams to the AAU junior national championships in Orlando in June. “The largest volleyball event in the world,” as the AAU calls it, includes hundreds of teams and drew an estimated 110,000 people to the city last year.
On Friday, the AAU announced its junior nationals have been pushed back and will now begin July 14. The organization will not allow spectators, will space out teams, check players’ temperatures before games and discourage handshakes.
Though the AAU has not canceled the event, Castillo is skeptical that any big events will happen this summer. If tournaments are canceled, the USA South director hopes he’ll be able to at least open his gym for training.
“I think it’s going to be tough to see the remainder of our competitions play out,” Castillo said. “Hopefully AAU nationals are able to go on. At the same time, for us, the No. 1 priority is our kids’ health. If we have to go (training instead of games) we’ll refocus and get our players ready for their high school seasons.”