After a year and a half of being kept off local baseball diamonds, the Orillia Slo-Pitch League (OSPL) officially gets underway tonight.
Laura Downard, who serves as the treasurer for the OSPL board of directors, says the league has worked extremely hard to get players back on the field this summer.
“I will be very excited when players are back on the field because that will mean we can sort of relax a little bit,” she chuckled.
The league’s executives have worked tirelessly alongside the City of Orillia to create a safe return-to-play plan that requires players to do online screening before arriving at the diamond, sanitize balls and bats, and practise social distancing.
“I think there is some anxiety among our players right now because it’s a different season. Players have been given a lot of information in regard to what the protocols are,” Downard said.
Despite players feeling a little overwhelmed, Downard says the protocols will soon be second nature.
“Once players take the field, all of that stuff just flips away and they can enjoy the game,” she said.
“I think the game will feel relatively back to normal, but we can’t let down our guard when it comes to making sure we are doing the right things at the highest level to keep players safe.”
This year, the OSPL consists of 57 teams and 836 players. Before COVID, there were 87 teams with well over 1,000 players.
“We are pretty happy with the numbers, we think they fall in line with the times we are living in,” Downard said.
The drop in numbers is a result of many different factors, Downard believes.
“People’s priorities have changed, work schedules have changed, and there is still a lot of COVID anxiety out there,” she said.
“We expect more players will return next year when we are able to offer a full season. At this point a lot of people have made other plans for their summer.”
Despite the decline in players and the need for new protocols, Downard says it was important for the slo-pitch to return this summer.
“Slo-Pitch has been a part of my life since I was 18 yearsold. It’s a great community, and I think it’s important that we keep the spirit of the game alive,” she said.
Ashley Verrall, captain for the Orillia A’s team which plays in the co-ed division, agrees with Downard.
“We are really excited to be back. We missed getting together with our friends and playing the sport that we love to play,” she said.
Verrall and the A’s have been playing tournaments outside of Orillia for the past year but have not played on local diamonds.
“It’s nice to be able to have something to do each night that’s positive and constructive, not only for myself but my kids, the players on my team, and everyone involved,” she said.
Verrall says the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t make her fearful of returning to the diamond this season.
“It’s an outdoor sport, we are all pretty well six feet apart, and most of my teammates are vaccinated. We actually aren’t really concerned with COVID at all to be honest,” she said.
Verrall says she has been a part of the Orillia Slo-Pitch community as a player for eight years.
“The world doesn’t stop for COVID. We are just living our lives and ultimately hoping for the best,” she said.
Matthew Ranger of the Studabakers Stallions in the men’s division is another long-time player who has returned to the diamond this year.
“I missed it a lot as I usually play on two separate teams, it’s a big part of my summers,” he said, noting he has been playing slo-pitch for 17 years.
“I missed being outside with the boys. It’s not about the competition to me, it’s about having fun and getting some exercise.”
While Ranger admits that only being able to play for parts of three months isn’t ideal, he is thankful to be back on the diamond with his teammates.
“It’s a shortened season, but at least we are playing. I think we are just happy to be back on the diamond in some capacity,” he said.
Ranger is confident that he, his friends, and teammates will be safe when they arrive at the diamond to play their weekly games.
“I’m double vaccinated which makes me feel safe. I know being around other people right now means we are taking our chances, but I’m confident that we can play ball safely this summer,” he said.
“Last year when we played some exhibition games just for fun, I was a little bit worried to be honest because I’m kind of diabetic, but this year we have the option to get the shot.”
Ranger is hopeful that next year there will be a full OSPL season with few or no protocols.
“Hopefully we can play a more normal and longer season, but I think that depends on everyone doing their part to get their shots,” he said.