The coronavirus pandemic at one point put the entire world on pause.
Restaurants were forced to transition to takeout and delivery, retail stores were closed and all sporting events were suspended until further notice.
That suspension turned into a cancellation for universities and high schools in March and on April 30, Little League International closed the door on the Little League World Series taking place.
Leagues across the East Valley and Ahwatukee quickly followed suit, canceling their seasons.
“Little League International encouraged leagues to try and have something as long as it was safe to do so,” said Phil Cardis, president of the Red Mountain Little League. “We were kind of holding on to the hope we would be able to do something.”
Little League International President and CEO Stephen Keener said despite the World Series being canceled, individual leagues across the country could still play their respective seasons should it be deemed safe by local health authorities.
Red Mountain Little League was one of the last leagues in the Valley to announce the cancellation.
Both Cardis and the board tried to wait things out as long as they could, as they had hoped for more guidance from state health officials on whether or not larger group gatherings could begin to take place sooner rather than later.
Ultimately, however, the thought of risking the safety of players and parents even if games were allowed to resume was something nobody involved with Red Mountain Little League wanted to take head on. Cardis officially announced Saturday, May 9 the season was canceled.
“If there was a way for us to provide something for the league, we wanted to do it,” Cardis said. “We wanted to work hard to give the kids in the community some sort of viable option.”
Cardis had to break the news to his son, George, a 12-year-old in his last season with Little League. George had hoped to make the All-Star team this summer and get the chance to win a state title and go further, perhaps even to Williamsport, Penn. for the Little League World Series.
Making it to Williamsport is every Little League player’s dream. But much like it was for seniors in high school in their final season, the opportunity was unfortunately taken away.
“I was disappointed,” George said. “I was just looking forward to playing. Everyone supported each other this year and had good sportsmanship.”
Cardis hopes Little League will establish some sort of waiver that allows this year’s 12-year-olds to compete in their own division rather than moving up to juniors or out of the league completely next year.
The participation rate drops considerably at the juniors’ level. Games are played at larger fields, which often doesn’t bode well for some players. There’s also the factor of kids electing to pursue club and junior high ball instead.
“A lot of kids don’t play after 12, it’s a numbers game,” said Doug Brewster, the president of Chandler National Little League. “There’s a huge drop with kids moving on to different things.”
Brewster has been involved with Chandler National for 20 years, dating back to when his son, who is now 25, started playing. He’s been a member of the board for 18 years and is in his 11th as president.
He, too, explored all avenues to preserve the 2020 season. But ultimately, Chandler National agreed to cancel the season and offer refunds to the families. Most, however, elected to donate it directly back to the league. Brewster said this was done out of concern for the league to continue operations going forward.
“A lot of the emails we received back were telling us to keep the money because they don’t want Chandler National to fold,” Brewster said. “We spend all of our money up front from uniforms, to fields and equipment. A lot of parents enjoy Chandler National and they want to give back.”
Brewster said the most difficult part about announcing the cancellation of the season as informing the 12-year-olds who will age out of the league.
Cash Groppenbacher, who was looking forward to carrying on the legacy of Chandler National’s All-Star success, took the news better than others.
“I kind of knew it would happen from the start because everything else was canceled,” said Cash, who will attend Bogle Junior High in the fall. “I will still have more opportunities in junior high, high school and maybe even college.”
Rich Groppenbacher, Cash’s father and longtime coach in Chandler National, believes this All-Star season could have been special for the league.
“The finality of it is there’s hope one day then it’s gone, it was a hard one to take,” Rich said. “Within our district, we were all really good teams. It was a fun summer last year and it would’ve been fun to get a chance to do it again.”
Chandler American League also started issuing refunds to families, as well as all five of the other leagues in Mesa. Both Gilbert American and Gilbert National also announced cancellations of the season.
“It was gut-wrenching to say the least,” said Ray Ng, president of the Ahwatukee Little League which canceled its season on April 30. “We have about 50 or 60 12-year-olds where this is their last year and a majority of them have been playing in our league for a long time. To have this last year taken from them is difficult.
“We tried to do everything we could to save the season for them.”