Veteran’s Field Softball Complex in Grand Island was no longer quiet this past weekend. It was filled with chants and cheering.
The GI Elite hosted the Midwest Showdown softball tournament, with 64 teams competing. Because of COVID-19, though, all softball teams and spectators had to follow new regulations for their safety.
“We want these kids out here,” said Brock Culler, the head coach for GI Elite and the person who set up the tournament. “But there are things we have to meet, these certain sets of guidelines…that you just can’t negotiate on.”
Culler started planning for the tournament in winter and wanted to host it during the first weekend of May. In March, though, he didn’t know if his team was going to play at all. After Gov. Pete Rickett’s statement, though, he continued his work on hosting the tournament. However, Culler had to talk to more people to get the tournament off the ground.
“The first thing you got to do is make sure the field and complex is available. Usually, that’s about all you got to do,” he said. “But given the circumstances, I had to check with the health department, the city, the mayor’s office and the Governor’s guidelines.”
Players had to stay six feet apart when in the dugout and on the field. Only household family members of the players could attend the games and had to bring their own chairs. They had to sit on the other side of the dugouts, where they faced the outfield. For the players’ safety, only one umpire could be on the field. This required more flexibility to make the best calls.
“When you’re in a normal field, you have your partner,” said Brennin Leach, one of the 12u umpires. “But when you’re out there by yourself, you just have to be in the best position possible.”
Before June 18, all umpires were to call pitches from behind the pitcher’s mound. However, everybody received an email saying umpires can stand behind the plate, except for 10u. Leach prepared himself for this change but was relieved to see that he could be behind the plate.
“I was a little nervous about being that far away,” he said. “I don’t think it would have been too bad, but I’m happy that I’m behind the plate for my games.”
All teams received an email before the tournament about the umpires’ new position. Paul Braun, the head coach of the 18u Nebraska Swingers, thought this would affect how his team played.
“The umpire…going behind the pitcher would have made a big difference [in how we played],” he said.
The Nebraska Swingers attended two out-of-state tournaments before the Midwest Showdown, one in Oklahoma and one in Kansas City. Braun said that there were “a lot less there” in those places than in Grand Island.
“It was more normal softball,” he said. “The only similarity between those tournaments and this one is we have to use our own ball on defense.”
Culler did not require gate fees, which he said made the tournament a “little bit of a financial challenge.” Another challenge he faced throughout the weekend was people not following the COVID-19 restrictions.
“[We] gotta keep them kind of apart…and we’re trying to keep everybody in that frame of mind,” Culler said. “They just want to go back to normal, but we’re not at normal yet.”
Braun liked how smoothly the tournament was from Friday to Sunday. After every game, a few volunteers came and provided sanitary spray into the dugouts. The teams also demonstrated good sportsmanship without shaking hands.
“All the teams have been real good about no handshakes and still being good sports,” he said. “It’s fantastic. That shows the credit to the kids, the coaches and the other team.”
The younger teams, after every game, yelled across the diamond, “Good game!” Culler said he missed this type of environment.
“I missed it,” he said. “Coach and players interacting, cleats on the pavement, balls hitting the bat, the little roar from fans across the complex after a big play. I love that.”
This is one of the first summer tournaments in Nebraska, and Leach said it brought a lot of excitement and some anxiety.
“I was nervous,” he said. “But I’m happy to see the girls playing softball. That’s what matters to me.”
Culler hopes that this can be the start of more tournaments this summer and this fall.
“I want to prove to everybody out there that we can have events like this and it can be done safely. We can do this and do it responsibly.”