Salem • In some ways, the scene at the Salem Hills High baseball field Thursday afternoon felt like a normal day of the spring season.
Players warmed up, played catch, fielded and hit. Spectators trickled in and took their posts on the grass surrounding the field. Coaches filled out lineup cards. Music blared before the first pitch.
But in other ways, it was clear this wasn’t a normal day at the field. Signs explaining safety protocols were posted in various locations. Bleachers were wrapped in caution tape to denote where spectators could and could not sit. Bottles of hand sanitizer hung on the chainlink doors to each team’s dugout.
The dichotomous scene marked the return of prep baseball in Utah after the state’s high school activities association canceled spring sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The two teams playing that afternoon — Salem Hills and Springville — kicked off the Last Chance Tournament, a two-week competition featuring 18 baseball programs from 5A and 6A.
The tournament took shape as a response to UHSAA’s decision to cancel the spring season. And those playing and watching couldn’t have been happier.
Springville senior pitcher Jakob Dellamas said he was getting ready to do other things with his life and move on after the season was officially canceled. But once word came about the possibility of a tournament, he and six other seniors on the team — there are nine total — were ready.
“With this whole pandemic thing, it kind of screws over your plans in general,” Dellamas said before the game started. “So just getting this last opportunity, it’s nice. You kind of wanted closure after that whole season, just kind of how it ended abruptly. So I’m really excited for it.”
Players and coaches on both teams, as well as fans, said they had little to no concerns about contracting the novel coronavirus and were satisfied with the measures tournament organizers took to keep people safe.
“I had zero worries,” said Lamecia Ewing, who was in attendance and has a daughter who plays softball at Springville. “The only thing that I felt was if they just have the fans kind of sit far apart from each other, the players not touch each other, and they just set some rules, I felt like it was totally safe.”
Salem Hills coach Scott Haney said he was surprised none of his players voiced concerns about playing in the tournament as the pandemic continues.
“Nobody knows about this coronavirus. They really don’t,” Haney said. “Some think it’s one thing, some think it’s another. And you just kind of hope for the best.”
One of the guidelines for the tournament is the use of masks were “suggested” for all spectators. No one was observed wearing one Thursday afternoon.
The Last Chance Tournament started less than two days after Jordan School District halted its own proposed tournament, the Jordan Cup, after sports medicine experts expressed concerned about the safety of athletes competing at a high level.
Haney said he asked other coaches on his staff if Jordan District’s decision worried them. But at the same time, he felt it made sense for that tournament not to move forward because it involved many sports.
“If it was just baseball, or just golf, or just tennis, it probably would’ve flew,” Haney said. “But when you got all of those things going on, I think that’s why they said, ‘Hey some of these are a little bit closer contact than the others.' ”
Springville coach Brad Poulsen said the majority of his players will compete in the tournament, and those who won’t had other commitments. Haney said his entire roster will participate.
Salem Hills senior shortstop Kyle Coburn, who committed to play at Utah Valley University, said the tournament is the best thing that could have happened for the seniors whose final seasons got cut short. And Dellamas pushed back on critics who say playing sports aren’t as important as making sure people stay healthy and don’t put others at risk.
“The people who say it doesn’t matter, I don’t think those people are really athletes,” Dellamas said. “They don’t know what it’s like to kind of have your season just suddenly end. … To those people who say it shouldn’t matter, it does matter to us.”
A champion will be crowned at the of the tournament. And although every player and coach wants to win, the competition could be about more than that.
“We’re going to compete our butts off,” Haney said, “but we’re also going to have a lot of fun.”