HIBBING — The Virginia Parks and Recreation Department last week had to suspend its summer youth sports programs for 14 days due to a positive test for COVID-19 last week. The news prompted teams in Hibbing and Nashwauk to suspend play as well.
When John Mammenga, who is the coach of the Fraboni’s Junior League team in Hibbing, heard about it, his first thoughts turned to what’s going to happen to the league? “We had just played the Virginia boys, and we found out on the way to the parking lot that their season was done for two weeks, until they got cleared,” Mammenga told the Mesabi Tribune. “That was my immediate thought. I was wondering if our league was in jeopardy. Is it going to continue to spread amongst youth sports? Hopefully, we can make it to the tournament, and finish the season before that does happen, if it happens.”
Mammenga also wondered whether there was going to be a trickle-down effect. Would other young athletes become infected with the coronavirus?
“Is it going to follow suit?” Mammenga said. “That’s what I was thinking. We’ve had a couple cases on other teams in this league where a coach or two has been shut down. So far, we’ve been lucky. Hopefully, that continues.”
The idea of a youth testing positive for COVID-19 sent shockwaves across the Iron Range, but the reality wasn’t entirely unexpected as the number of cases has increased in recent weeks on the Iron Range.
“To be honest, I knew it was coming,” Tim Zubich, a coach for the Hibbing VFW team, told the Mesabi Tribune. “You could feel it, especially hearing about more local cases. I think it was inevitable. I admired Virginia for shutting everything down. It was the right thing to do.”
He continued, “I’ve been thinking about it every day. I have little kids at home and grandparents on my mind all of the time. I don’t want to have to worry about something like this. That’s why you keep your hands clean and keep a safe distance.”
In the meantime some sports teams are still playing in Hibbing, like the Senior Babe Ruth team, the VFW team and Junior League baseball, in addition to teams from surrounding communities.
Earlier in the year, Hibbing baseball held a parent’s meeting before the season started, so they were given the opportunity to opt out of the season due to the onset of the coronavirus in Minnesota.
“I have respect for anyone’s decision,” Zubich said. “When we found out we were going to have a season, we had numerous conversations with the other coaches on what was the right thing to do. We had a meeting to gauge people’s thoughts. Every program handles it differently. No one knows the right answer, but as it hits closer to home, we’ll be a little more cautious, but at some point, we have to expand to normal activities or normal games.”
Sara Maki is a parent of one of the players on the Fraboni’s team in Hibbing. When she saw that news about a youth getting the coronavirus in neighboring Virginia, she figured it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
“Do we stop everything, or do we keep going as we have been?” Maki said. “That’s a personal opinion to everybody. We played that Virginia team two times, and after we found out, it’s personal as to what you want to do with it.”
Maki opined that the Hibbing league has taken the proper precautions.
“As much as they possibly can,” she said. “It’s washing your hands. Wear the masks if you want to. Social distance. I do what I need to do out in the public for other people’s sake.
“I’m not too concerned about it. I know the cases are increasing, but I haven’t seen too many increases in children as I have in adults.”
All agree there are safeguards in play, but one of the biggest safety obstacles is having athletes practice social distancing.
“That’s been the struggle with the kids,” Zubich said. “It’s tough to try and stay 6-feet away. The kids forget that. They’re with their buddies, and they want to interact with them. We spread them out the best that we can.” His players also bring their own sanitizer to clean their hands during games. “We have very little close contact with the other team, other than touching the ball,” he said. “We tip our hats at the end of games instead of shaking hands.”
Given recent events, the coaches and parents are faced with a new question: what does the threat of youth being infected with the coronavirus mean for participation?
For Mammenga, he hasn’t seen a decline in numbers during the pandemic. “Most of the boys I’m seeing around the park, I recognize them,” he said. “Most of the boys I expected to be here playing ball are here. It’s a free choice. If you don’t feel safe, then the right thing to do is keep your son or daughter out of summer sports and lay low.”
Mammenga is a parent himself, so he also grapples with that decision in his family.
“I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t think about it,” he said. “You want them to play, not just my sons, but all of the boys. You want them to play summer ball. It’s important in their development. It gets them ready for school ball. How long can you stay caged up?”