While most of the sports world was shut down, AAU and travel ball remained steadfast amidst the pandemic.
| 12:33 p.m. August 12, 2020
Every once in a while, Dean Spinogatti walks onto the field from the dugout to holler and point out instructions to his Mojo travel softball team.
It’s 11 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 9, and his girls are taking in a scrimmage against the West Florida Cush on Field 4 at Hancock Park in Clermont.
Although the score doesn’t matter, and the objective is to get the girls some kind of practice time in given how disjointed the season had been, Spinogatti is just glad to be on a field with his team.
“With Little League canceling, and all of rec ball canceling and schools and so on, we have been lucky to get back on the field — softball and baseball,” said Spinogatti, who also serves on the Windermere Little League board. “It’s been a freaking godsend, because everybody was holed up inside, and no one knew what to do. Luckily, we were able to get out to the field to at least play, because you have to at least get back to some sense of normalcy, or you’ll go crazy.”
ADJUSTING TO THE RULES
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in March, sports programs began to fall apart. For a short time, AAU and travel ball were among the organizations stalled, but then something happened, said Brian Rizo — who coaches the Hoop Dreamz Elite girls basketball team. There was a push for something to give, he said.
“Honestly, I was thinking we wouldn’t have a season, and then the pressure started building, it felt like, because parents were like, ‘Hey, are we doing anything?’” Rizo said. “That’s what was surprising to me, too, because a lot of these parents — I was hearing different conversations with different groups — they want to get back out there, but I was like, ‘Hey I get it, but we kind of got some stuff going on and we have to wait it out and see.’”
For Rizo, who also coaches the girls basketball program at West Orange High, the AAU season was supposed to begin in April. By the time of the first tournament of the year, it was already the end of June.
Although there was excitement about the start of the season, there were still some nerves among players, Rizo said.
“There was a lot of hesitation … across the board for everybody, just because people didn’t know what to expect,” Rizo said. “And of course with COVID protocols they have installed, we were kind of just getting acclimated with that, as well — wearing masks to enter buildings, temperature checks at the door and sanitizing hands prior to the game on the bench … just little things that we had to adjust to.”
Rizo’s team made the adjustments needed on the court, but it still took time. And his program wasn’t the only one that started its season with hesitation.
Although the basketball season ramped up much later in the summer due to it being played indoors, the softball season for Spinogatti’s Mojo team and George Paulson’s 18U Windermere Wildfire team started up months earlier in May.
Softball still had rules in place for teams, parents and coaches that took some time to get used to, said Lexi Scalzo — who just finished her penultimate seasons on George Paulson’s Windermere Wildfire 18U softball team.
“We definitely had to adjust to them,” Scalzo said. “Most tournaments we couldn’t share the ball between teams — like we had to have our own ball, so everyone had to be responsible and make sure that every time a foul ball was hit, we would have another ball from our bucket. It definitely took adjusting to, but we were just happy — we’d do anything to be out on the field.”
Even though softball got its season off in a timely matter, maintaining it was anything but easy, said Lisa Scalzo, Lexi Scalzo’s mother.
“There were some tournaments that we had planned on going to that were canceled, so we picked up more local tournaments,” she said. “We go to Scenic City which is held in Chattanooga — that’s a big tournament that a lot of college coaches go to — and that was completely canceled. It was tough, because you have to listen to the local governing counties and their rules and the social distancing and stuff.”
Both Rizo and Spinogatti dealt with the same issue, as tournaments were canceled and put on at a moment’s notice. And sometimes, even when they had tournaments, teams pulled out for virus-related reasons. Rizo said eight teams in a basketball tournament last weekend had to drop out because athletes tested positive for COVID-19.
There also have been issues with just simply having a place to play, which has plagued Spinogatti’s Winter Garden-based team for months. And looking ahead, the struggle will continue on into the near future.
“I’ve had to find different places to practice — I’ve had to get creative,” Spinogatti said. “For some reason, Winter Garden is being very conservative, which is surprising, because usually they’re on the forefront of everything. I just want to get back onto the field with my girls and practice again instead of having to go to these elementary schools and try to find a field here and there.”