Diamond days ahead: Upper Valley youth baseball makes return

  • Lebanon Youth Baseball Association coach Brandon Lahaye, right, watches players run the bases during practice on Thursday, June 26, 2020, in Lebanon, N.H. Board member Jason Gunn, left, watches players Liam Wachsman, 9, of Grantham, N.H., run to first, Billy Diamond, 8, of Meriden, N.H., waits at home plate while Sophie Didomenico, 9, of West Lebanon, steps up. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Jason Gunn, a board member of the Lebanon Youth Baseball Association, talks to players about wearing masks during their practice at Logan Field in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, June 26, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Aila Van Dolah, 11, of Meriden, N.H., helps her father Mike Van Dolah, president of the Lebanon Youth Baseball Association, set for practice at Logan Field in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, June 26, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley NEws photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Billy Diamond, 8, of Meriden, N.H., looks for a hit during practice at Logan Field in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, June 25, 2020. Lebanon Youth Baseball has started practices for the season. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/27/2020 9:16:37 PM
Modified: 6/27/2020 9:26:04 PM

WEST LEBANON — Think of it as a three-month-long mound visit.

Guys like Mike Van Dolah, Jay Lemire and Pat McBride were preparing for the Upper Valley youth baseball season when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. Once it became clear that this spring would be no normal one, each hunkered down with his respective organization and thought of how to make baseball meaningful for the kids, assuming he’d even get the chance.

Fast-forward to Wednesday evening. Van Dolah stood near the pitcher’s mound of Smith Field, talking with Lebanon Youth Baseball Association coaches Jason Gunn, Travis Clarkson and Tom Scanlon as they worked out their Major Gold U12 team for the first time this summer. Gunn later manned a machine lobbing fly balls to outfielders as Clarkson and Scanlon ran infield drills.

Play ball. Finally.

“It makes me smile a lot,” Van Dolah confessed. “I think these kids, I hope, also get to smile more.”

The pandemic has bumped the youth baseball schedule back a couple of months. With the help of loosened stay-at-home restrictions in Vermont and New Hampshire, it hasn’t wiped it out entirely.

Most, if not all, of the Upper Valley’s youth baseball groups align with Babe Ruth Baseball and its Cal Ripken division for younger players. Both canceled national and regional tournaments once the pandemic took hold, but they allowed local groups leeway to schedule as circumstances permitted.

In a normal year, Cal Ripken would be wrapping up district tournaments and prepping for next week’s states. In its place, Lebanon is uniting with neighbors Dresden, Norwich and Hartford for an eight-week season — two weeks of practice, six of games — that could see on-field competition start on July 6.

“We’re fairly limited by the number of volunteers and coaches; we’re running into more demand than we can handle,” said Lemire, the president of the Hartford Baseball and Softball Association. “We’re working to figure that out. All of us volunteer parents are trying to do our best with administration, making sure we’re all operating by all local, state and Babe Ruth safety guidelines. It’s a lot of work.

“This year particularly has been a little stressful. We’re all being spoon-fed and kind of have to adapt and react to the nuances of this paradigm shift in how to plan to play baseball.”

The LYBA saw preseason player evaluations go down the drain as pandemic lockdowns arrived. Those sessions ultimately led to the player draft that sets Lebanon’s rosters for Majors (ages 11-12) and Minors (ages 9-10) for the coming season.

Van Dolah said the LYBA board essentially took a month off when it realized the normal schedule wouldn’t happen.

“We spent a good deal of time as a board planning, and then we realized, ‘You know what? We just can’t predict how all this is going to shake out,’ ” he said.

Van Dolah felt more comfortable seeing how other Upper Valley programs were addressing the situation and doing research. The Hanover-based Dresden Baseball Association ultimately took the point.

“Obviously, we had a lot of time on our hands,” said McBride, who became Dresden’s president on June 1. “We went into planning mode with the goal of being prepared to provide this opportunity when the state gave us their approval to move forward. As soon as we received some sort of indication that youth sports activities were going to be allowed to begin, when we knew it was imminent, we went into a small-group practice model. We opened up registration and formed.”

Dresden, per state guidelines, limited initial workouts to no more than 10 people in a group, including coaches. Sign-ups at the Minors, Majors and Babe Ruth (ages 13-15) levels netted more than 65 kids.

“Which was great,” McBride said.

Players are required to supply their own equipment, water and pandemic-ready face masks; the latter must be worn when social distancing isn’t possible but aren’t required in the midst of game action. They are also asked to bring their own hand sanitizer, for use before and after sessions. Teams on defense will supply baseballs when games start, all of which are disinfected afterward.

Associations are also requiring voluntary COVID officers for each team, a person responsible for making sure guidelines are followed. Van Dolah took on that role for his son Cayden’s U13 squad with the Concord Cannons program.

“It’s been good for me to inform our process,” said Van Dolah, the baseball coach at Kimball Union Academy.

Parents are being asked to keep their distance for now. They aren’t banned from watching, but it’s preferred they do so from their cars.

On Wednesday evening, Nabil Elkouh and Sheila Cragg-Elkouh, of Enfield, parked beyond the right-field fence at Smith Field in West Lebanon as their 13-year-old son, Estyn, manned first base during infield drills. They’re normally cautious by nature, but they felt comfortable with how the LYBA was handling things.

“It seems like they have a pretty good setup in terms of notifying everybody ahead of time what the rules are,” Cragg-Elkouh said. “Even Estyn was reading them off to us before we left, making sure that we were going to be standing in the right place, staying close to the car. He was well-versed on what was to be expected both of him as a player and us as parents.”

The youngest of four children, Estyn enjoys baseball most of all, his father said, and it’s been a difficult spring not having it available.

“He’s probably the oldest kid here, but he’s excited because he gets to do something,” Nabil Elkouh said. “He’s been cooped up in the house. It’s hard, at that age, to understand the enormity of what’s really going on.”

Dresden started about three weeks go, Van Dolah said, with Norwich close behind. Lebanon and Hartford started workouts last week. All are optimistic that they’ll meet their target date for game action in less than two weeks.

“For me, the spring was long, and I know it was for a lot of others,” said McBride, Dartmouth College’s director of athletic fundraising. “It’s great to see the kids enthusiastic to play. I think baseball is a sport of patience in general, and we saw the ultimate test of people’s patience this spring waiting for the season to get here.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.

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