A freshly manicured field, clean white bases and a newly installed lighting system greeted the Ocoee High baseball team when it took to the diamond in its preseason opener Tuesday, Feb. 9.
The score itself didn’t really matter given its scrimmage-like nature, but the game served as a first in a few ways. It was the first night game in program history, and it was the first time the team had taken the field since March 11, 2020 — two days before Orange County Public Schools shut campuses down because of COVID-19.
That’s why the arrival of the new spring season has coaches and players alike thankful to get back to the places they’re supposed to be, Ocoee baseball head coach Chad Hall said.
“I’m sure it’s the same around the league, but they really missed it last year, and you could see their faces when they came out for tryouts to actually put on gloves, have a ball in their hand and be out there together — they were excited,” Hall said. “To be able to get around the game you love again and the friends that you love, it makes them happy.”
COPING AND PREPARING
When Stephanie Johnson-Possell thinks back on how last year ended for her boys and girls water polo teams at Olympia, it’s bittersweet.
On the same day she picked up her 500th and 501st win with the program, the Titans’ season came to an abrupt halt alongside everyone else. Fast forward to today, and like everyone else, Johnson-Possell is trying to play catchup as the new season kicks off with new challenges brought forth by the pandemic.
The biggest issue for Olympia has been caused by inadequate time to train in the pool. The YMCA Aquatic Center on I-Drive was shut down due to COVID and won’t open until March, while the National Training Center in Clermont had to drain its pool due to a maintenance issue. Going into the season with such little chance to get physically ready has been difficult, Johnson-Possell said.
“Getting ourselves back to the fitness level is a challenge because you don’t have as much time, and there are things we can’t do compared to what we have been able to do in the past to get our fitness levels up high,” Johnson-Possell said. “But we are super excited to be playing, and that is the No. 1 thing — that we are playing, and that we are healthy.”
Currently, the Titans have to use an Orlando city pool and also drive to Winter Park High School for practice time and games. And those practices — which previously took place before school — now happen later at night.
Other programs also are facing changes. In Winter Garden, West Orange High softball coach Todd LaNeave spent most of his fall doing virtual teaching while tending to the softball field on campus. It kept him sane, as if it were therapy, he said.
“I’m sure it’s the same around the league, but they really missed it last year, and you could see their faces when they came out for tryouts to actually put on gloves, have a ball in their hand and be out there together — they were excited.”
— Chad Hall, Ocoee High baseball coach
In the case of baseball and softball, the normal fall ball season — a time when coaches can evaluate talent and build relationships — didn’t happen. LaNeave was given an option to start a travel ball organization with his girls but declined because many of them already had teams. Going into the season with new faces, he knew not having fall ball would affect how things normally would start.
“It changes it a lot,” LaNeave said. “For … our team, where we graduated six seniors last year, and with the exception of a handful of returners … we have all of these young players coming in that I don’t know anything about, that I would have known something about if we had played a fall season.”
On top of the delay in getting to know their players, other issues from COVID-19 have popped up for many programs, including having fewer players return and the preparation for schedule shifts that come with game cancellations.
There also are challenges with how practices are run, especially for athletes — such as Edward Byrd — playing in a sport for the first time. Byrd, who wreaks havoc on the line for the Foundation Academy football team, is playing in his first season on the school’s lacrosse team.
“The biggest challenge would most definitely be having the team practice,” Byrd said. “We have to split the team up half and half, so it’ll be defense practicing defense and offense practicing offense — so you can’t get any real game experience. It’s just hard to learn with players being so separated.”
But there’s one thing that isn’t an issue: Athletes knowing a big part of their seasons hinge on them doing the right things when it comes to following COVID guidelines.
After having last season taken from them and seeing the seniors lose out on their final year, players have approached this year differently than previous seasons. Nothing is being taken for granted, Hall said.
“They know that this is not guaranteed for them,” Hall said. “I see a little bit different work ethic from them, like, ‘Hey, I’m a sophomore and I only have two more years — I better get on it.’”