Spring sports could interfere with travel ball if they resume

Heather VanLandingham knew the responsibilities of taking over Chamberlain’s softball program from legendary coach Bobby Diez would be too much to pull double duty. So she stepped down as coach of her travel team to focus entirely on the Chiefs. 

Still, that did not mean VanLandingham was intent on giving up softball’s summer circuit for good. Once high school season ended, she planned to be a pitching coach for the travel team she ran for years. 

Now, there is a potential scheduling snafu. 

The Florida High School Athletic Association has postponed all games, meets and tournaments through May 3 because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the state’s organizing body for high school sports has yet to rule on cancelling spring sports altogether.

In a March 31 press release, the FHSAA said its staff “is actively working on creative solutions for the continuance of spring sports through June 30,” provided schools return to a classroom setting and sports are given the green-light by the Florida Department of Education to resume.

Athletic directors from around the stare are holding weekly meetings with FHSAA officials to discuss the potential obstacles of extending the season into the summer such as expired physicals, lack of officials and the availability of stadiums for state tournaments and meets. 

Another potential conflict that has not been explored is how much interference there will be with the travel circuit if sports are pushed back that far. Typically, the high school season for baseball and softball ends in mid-May. Teams that make it to the state semifinals and final already find themselves having to juggle schedules to accommodate those who play for travel teams. 

The big draw in the summer is showcase events. College coaches, most of whom have limited recruiting budgets, attend these supersized competitions to watch hundreds of teams  — and thousands of prospects  — in one setting. While high school contests have been postponed, the showcases, particularly in softball, plan to go on as scheduled. More than 200 travel teams have already registered for the Scenic City Showcase, held June 4-7 in Chattanooga, Tenn. 

More of a premium is placed on attending this year, especially with the financial restraints of non-revenue college sports such as baseball and softball. The budgets were squeezed even tighter when the NCAA granted an additional year of eligibility in spring sports. Fully-funded Division I-A softball programs, for example, offer 12 scholarships. Teams carry about 20-25 players. All of that was before extending eligibility. 

VanLandingham’s daughter, Serenity Jaenichen, is a junior. The two were hoping to trek across the summer attending as many showcases as possible for college exposure. 

“The chances of us going back to school at all are very slim so instead of allowing seniors to deal with this and move on you are stringing them along,” Van Landingham said.  “My daughter is a 2021 graduate and this is the most important summer for her so if by chance we get to play this summer she has to be seen. I just don’t get it. It’s allowing false hope when they are already dealing with so much right now. It’s not fair.”

If spring sports resume for high school teams, the time frame would likely allow for an acclimation period before an abbreviated regular season, followed by postseason play that could last well into June. Under that scenario, parents and players involved in travel teams could be forced to choose between high school and travel ball.   

“It absolutely would make a tough decision,” Van Landingham said. “I honestly have no idea what we would do or how that would work.”

Admiral Farragut softball Bill Hoopes, whose team won the Class 3A state title last season, said travel ball and high school can still coexist through June. 

“I think it really depends on how the (FHSAA) does it,” said Hoopes, who also is the state director for Premier Girls Fastpitch, which runs elite showcases. “If they want to play on the weekends, yes, it will interfere. If they want to play like a Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday, then no I don’t think it will. 

“Softball isn’t like the other sports. These girls already play year-round. It just depends on the details. Coaches who normally would not let teams have any interaction with their travel teams are going to have to bend and make compromises for sure.”

Farragut coach Bill Hoopes
Admiral Farragut coach Bill Hoopes throwing batting practice

For Hoopes, there is plenty at stake in high school softball. The Blue Jackets are trying to become the first bay area program to win three straight state titles.

National titles are on the line, too. Lakewood Ranch, which made the state semifinals two years ago and the state final last year, are currently ranked as the top team in the country according to MaxPreps. The Mustangs are coached by TJ Goelz, who runs the Tampa Mustangs 18-under travel team. 

“I just know there’s coaches like me, and TJ, and many others who were and are fighting for something so to not have that chance isn’t fun,” Hoopes said. “There’s so many seniors who want their season to end properly. So many who want that senior night.”

Jesuit’s renowned baseball team also has lofty goals it hopes to fulfill. The Tigers were ranked by several outlets as the top team in the country. They wanted to not only win their second straight state title but also finish the season undefeated, an accomplishment few baseball programs have ever achieved. 

The scheduling issues between travel and high school seasons are not as glaring in baseball this summer. American Legion Baseball has already cancelled its region and World Series events. 

And the need to be in front of college coaches and scouts could have less value, too. 

“I think it could actually be the opposite,” Jesuit baseball coach Miguel Menendez said of the urge to gain exposure in travel baseball this summer. “With the college guys potentially getting this year back, I think the recruiting process may slow down some until the fall. Schools are going to see how a shortened draft impacts them, the guys coming back, and then the class of 2020 guys.  I think it may take them some time to figure out their rosters for next year and then they will focus on recruiting.”

Jesuit baseball field

For now, the Tigers meet on Zoom weekly to talk, the conversations inevitably turning to baseball and getting back on the field. 

“They’ve stayed focused on being ready if we get another opportunity to play,” Menedez said. “It’s definitely not the most important thing right now, but the hope of a return to baseball has been good for them.”