• kathrynepadilla

Norwalk High school Varsity Softball returns to its Circle

Updated: May 19

Norwalk, CA -- In February 2021, the California Interscholastic Federation - Southern Section (CIF-SS) released its official statement regarding the return of sports, and each individual proposed schedule for the 2021 season.

This sudden news gave the Norwalk High School Softball team a short period to reach out to its returning athletes and incoming first-year students. However, after going an entire year without play, the young athletes were ecstatic and eager to play some type of season.

“I was enthusiastic and ready to go,” said assistant coach Fred Perez. “I know a lot of the kids that I still talked to were pretty much tired of being at home and not doing anything and helping them just get out. Not just for this sport, but every sport, just to get them out of the house.”

Time ceased to freeze for the NHS softball team as the COVID-19 pandemic declaration forced society to close all operations across the United States during the middle of its 2020 season.

The athletes and coaches perceived the initial two-week closure as a great initiative to contain the virus and knew they would eventually return to their season -- that was not the case.

As the advancement of the pandemic escalated and reached hundreds of thousands of cases, that idea of being able to return to gameplay disappeared from their minds. They quickly turned into playing a role in society and following all guidelines to ‘“flatten the curve.”

“At the beginning, it was very shocking. It didn’t come out as ‘this is gonna get big real quick,” said sophomore Leilani “Lei” Juan.

While no sports were running in 2020, besides professional leagues, a handful of the Lady Lancers took matters into their own hands and began to run their own conditioning drills at nearby parks.

“During that whole time, I was working on myself and getting better for the whole team,” Juan said. “I have some nets at home and setting those up so I can be able to hit. I have an older brother at home, so that's a big advantage by playing basketball at home and other sports to keep in shape and athletic.”

A few athletes who were a part of private clubs and travel ball teams took the opportunities that those coaches provided to practice. These practices occurred only in a safe and socially distanced manner, with each participant wearing a mask at all times.

Senior Arianna “Aries” Ortiz took the opportunity to destress and unload from workload during the 2020 closures. However, she did return to club volleyball practice shortly after a month into the pandemic and described how well her coaches maintained a safe and clean environment for the girls.

“Always keep your mask on. You can’t touch other people’s ball,” Ortiz said. “They gave us a ball, and you had to wipe the ball after you were done with it. There was also a plastic sheet on the net so we wouldn't interact with the other side.”

This preliminary interaction with COVID-19 guidelines played a huge role when Ortiz returned to the NHS team later on in the year and allowed her to feel safe throughout her experience.

While the closures allowed the athletes some downtime, a few viewed this time as one of the hardest for them because they found a haven playing softball. Like those on the NHS team, young athletes used sports as a form of escape from reality or a way for them to focus on something other than their personal struggles.

According to Dr. Ramya Dwivedi, Ph.D., Medical News, an increase of anxiety and depression between high school athletes was seen between those who were not playing and those in Fall 2020. The substantial difference can be seen with the NHS athletes who felt “off” without their respective sport.

“I was a little bit frustrated because softball was my outlet and ‘stuff’ were not the best, but I understood because of COVID and people were dying,” said freshman Kendall “Ken Nakano.

However, as the cases of COVID-19 reduced at a steady rate and counties were moving into less severe tiers. CIF-SS started teasing a potential season for High School sports in January.

In February 2021, CIF-SS released the proposed schedules for all High School sports with some restrictions in certain divisions. The NHS softball team saw the announcement and were thrilled to see that they will be looking at competing in a full season.

The CIF-SS softball schedule was a 72-day season beginning on March 19 through May 29, with one preseason game and 20 games overall. Preliminaries beginning on June 1, playoffs aimed for June 18-19, and the regional final on June 26.

The announcement was so sudden that it left the NHS softball team with a little less than a month of practice and a young team to work with. However, in the beginning, stages of creating the team and practices, there were daily updates of guidelines that kept the team on their feet.

“It started with we’re going to possibly have a season to we’re going to have a season to let's start conditioning and conditioning in pods,” said assistant Coach Victor Juan. “That Monday, we started conditioning, and by that Wednesday, we were told we could not practice. It happened that fast.”

The CIF-SS consistently stayed up to date with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and California government guidelines to keep all participants safe. For softball specifically, some of the guidelines were masks to be worn at all times, limited attendees at the game, and constant social distancing.

Regarding the dugout, only players and athletes were allowed inside and must engage in social distancing. If there was no room within the dugout, the guidelines insisted on having coaches or athletes, who were not on the lineup, stand outside of it. Any attendees at the games were not allowed to sit near the dugout and must be wearing a mask at all times.

Some rules for competition play were no pre/post handshakes; it was up to the team to acknowledge the opposing team in whatever manner they chose. There were no interactions with the blue (umpire), such as no more line-up exchange cards. In terms of equipment, it was encouraged for athletes to use personal bats and gloves. However, team balls and bats were separated as “dirty” and clean and sanitized after every use.

Yet, with all these guidelines, the Lady Lancers had no issue following and keeping their teammates accountable to keep one other safe.

According to Perez, the athletes are very attentive and vocal when they see that they are slowly running low on sanitary supplies. From the beginning of the season, the coaches have had no issues with any of the athletes not following the rules set in place for their safety.

In addition, softball has the least amount of physical contact with players, making it easier for the team to incorporate CIF-SS guidelines.

The NHS Softball team has battled through various obstacles that could have prevented them from a season. However, due to the nation's healing and the slow recovery of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are grateful to play a full season.

While the team comprises a majority of freshmen and three seniors, they have put on a show for its attendees and will slowly grow to reach its potential that it showcased the previous year.

Due to the pandemic, many teams have opted out of playing but still have left some heavy competitors for the Lady Lancers. The young squad currently sits in third in the Suburban League with a record of 2-2 (5-6 overall). Its series against Firebaugh High school ended with the mercy rule as the Lady Lancers dominated the Falcons with a 14-0 and 19-0 victory.

“We played some pretty tough teams in the area in the preseason,” said Victor Juan. “We have a lot of sophomores and a lot of freshmen … with a tough preseason schedule because we want to play the tougher teams to make them better competitors.”

Optimism is all this team views after the year-long drought without sports. In addition, having to endure not having a home field (due to construction) has pushed the young ladies to persevere throughout the season.

No matter what the outcome is for this team, they have voiced they are happy to be around friends and a sport they love.

“I’m very blessed and thankful to be out here with girls from the school and my community and from travel,” said Leilani Juan. I’m very grateful this has come back.”

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