They played baseball here last week. Real, meaningful baseball games, where winners advanced and losers went home, with fastballs and strikeouts and pop flies and even a couple of home runs. People watched from the stands, too, cheering hits and chasing fouls, and, for a few fleeting moments, everything felt normal inside Principal Park.

Johnston wins the Class 4A state baseball championship



a group of baseball players standing on top of a grass covered field: Members of the Johnston baseball team celebrate a Class 4A state title win over Ankeny at Principal Park in Des Moines on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020.

© Bryon Houlgrave/The Register
Members of the Johnston baseball team celebrate a Class 4A state title win over Ankeny at Principal Park in Des Moines on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020.

Iowa became the first state nationally to bring high school sports back amid the coronavirus pandemic, mostly because it is the only state to sponsor prep sports in the summer. On May 20, Gov. Kim Reynolds gave the go-ahead for practices to start June 1, hoping to provide something ordinary at a time when nothing really is anymore.

A 62-day season followed, even as COVID-19 continued to overwhelm everyday life, and it’s hard to say the summer was anything other than a rousing success. Of the 338 varsity baseball teams that started this summer, only 12 didn’t finish due to the coronavirus, according to the Iowa High School Athletic Association.

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“Recently, I was in Sioux Center, and a young man, a high school senior, thanked me for letting him play baseball this summer,” Reynolds said last week. “He said it really meant a lot to him and to his teammates to get the opportunity to play this summer.

“That began with parents and students saying, ‘All we want is a chance to play ball.’ Iowa schools, the athletic unions, coaches, players and parents worked together to play safely and responsibly. They showed we can do this, and we can do this safely.”

The conclusion unfolded at the state tournament in Des Moines, featuring 28 games over a nine-day span. A record number of fans — yes, really — were treated to one of the most competitive, entertaining and memorable weeks of baseball’s four-class era.

A season that many thought wouldn’t happen ended, as originally scheduled, with four state champions at Principal Park.

“I’m proud of the state of Iowa for allowing us to play,” Urbandale coach Jeremy Heinen said. “We didn’t know if we were going to have this or not. But to be down here, playing — heck yeah.”

‘It was a privilege to even play’

The very first game back was played in the same spot as the last game of the season. Colfax-Mingo beat Tri-County, 10-0, at Principal Park on June 15. Two schools with a combined 9-11 enrollment of 231 students played in the nation’s first high school varsity event of any kind since the pandemic shut sports down in mid-March.

“It’s just exciting to be out and playing,” Colfax-Mingo coach Brian Warrick said then, “because a month ago, we didn’t think we were going to be playing any baseball this year.”

The highlight of the game wasn’t Colfax-Mingo’s 7-run seventh-inning, but a moment in the middle, when Tigerhawk pitcher Brady Berkey licked his fingers. The umpire stopped the game and sent Berkey to the dugout for hand sanitizer and a new ball.

The IHSAA deferred to county public health departments when it came to dealing with positive coronavirus tests (read: contact tracing). For some schools, that meant sitting for two weeks, no matter what. Others, like Bishop Heelan, isolated the infected players while the rest played on.

In all, nine teams missed time during the regular season because of positive tests but returned before or in time for the postseason, per the IHSAA. It is likely impossible to know exactly how many teams were actually impacted.

The total number of games played offers clues. Just 75 teams — 22 percent — played 20 or more games this summer while 18 played 10 or fewer. Ankeny played 30 games, the most of any team, while Storm Lake St. Mary’s, Mason-Northwest Webster, and Iowa Falls-Alden all played just seven.

“We talked about how it was a privilege to even play,” Ankeny coach Joe Balvanz said, “and with privilege comes responsibilities.”

The ebbs and flows of the season almost assuredly played a role in setting up one of the more intriguing state tournaments in recent memory. Consider:

Eight teams qualified for the first time in more than a decade: Kingsley-Pierson and Burlington-Notre Dame in 1A; Mid-Prairie, West Lyon and Durant in 2A; Norwalk in 3A; and Cedar Falls and Iowa City High in 4A. Both Clear Creek-Amana (3A) and Dike-New Hartford (2A) were first-time qualifiers.

West Lyon — the school furthest from Principal Park, at 269 miles — qualified for the first time since 1996. Cedar Falls, which boasted a 7-1 record after missing two weeks because of their own positive test then another after other teams canceled games before substate play, returned for the first time since 1989.

The Class 1A field featured a combined 21 state championships and a combined record of 154-13 entering the quarterfinal round. The 4A field combined for 14 team titles. Only three teams ranked in the final Class 3A coaches poll qualified, and 2A featured two teams who had previously won state titles.

There was no shortage of storylines.

‘It was special seeing the crowd’

The weather held up most of the week, all clear skies and warm air and nightly breezes. The only weather-related hiccup came when rain poured on Sunday, July 26, causing a two-hour delay of the following Monday’s Class 2A quarterfinals.

Fans wore shades and some wore masks but all were decked out in the colors of their favorite teams. Attendance numbers varied by game. Principal Park only made about 1,800 seats available per game, about 15{3e0544090c75b66d16c3eca4d142e2092ea98ee5f79f18046a1f13abafab9023} capacity, to help with social distancing. Tickets were sold in sets. If someone bought three tickets in a spot with four available seats, for example, the fourth was not made available to someone else.

The Class 2A, 3A and 4A title games all “sold-out” but had different crowd numbers: 1,783, 1,797, and 1,869, respectively. The combined attendance for all 28 games was 29,904 — more than last year (28,797) and the eighth-highest total attendance since Principal Park started hosting the state tournament in 2005.

Imagine that — more fans came during a pandemic, with limited seating and safety protocols in effect, than when there were no restrictions.

“It was special seeing the crowd,” Johnston’s Caden Steck said after the Dragons beat Urbandale, 3-1, with an announced sold-out crowd of 1,710 in the 4A semifinals Friday night.

Those that made the trip were treated to a show.

Of the 28 contested games, 19 were decided by two runs or fewer, including both the Class 1A and 3A championship games. There were also 11 games decided on runs scored in the sixth inning or later, including four in walk-off fashion, and a tournament-record five extra-inning games.

Two 1-seeds lost in the opening round: Kingsley-Pierson upset Martensdale-St. Marys, 3-2, in 1A; Marion edged Sergeant Bluff-Luton, 3-1, in 3A. A pair of 6-seeds made the finals: Newman Catholic in 1A, Des Moines Christian in 2A. Don Bosco’s Cael Frost and Newman’s Max Burt both hit home runs. Ankeny’s Brody Brecht struck out four batters in one inning on his way to a tournament-high 16 in the quarterfinals.

‘It was legit locked’

There was also that whole bathroom thing.

Gilbert coach Jeremy Eldred was watching his players stretch and warm-up on Friday afternoon when he heard some loud bangs and a muffled voice from the far end of the dugout.


Eldred turned with a confused look on his face. He heard it again — Coach! — and discovered that Joe Drzycimski had locked himself in the dugout bathroom. 

“It was a heavy door,” the junior said later. “It shut behind me. Turned around, and there was no knob or a lock on the door, so I started banging on the door. Coaches didn’t answer at first, but they came and saw that I was stuck.”

Iowa Cubs stadium operations employees used a sledgehammer to rescue Drzycimski. The Gilbert crowd gave him a small applause when he emerged from the dugout. The Tigers’ 3A semifinal game against Dallas Center-Grimes was delayed by 20 minutes.

“It was kind of comical,” Eldred said. “(People) thought I was messing around when I said I couldn’t open the door, but I really couldn’t open the door. It was legit locked.”

It was easy for Gilbert to laugh afterward. Drzycimski contributed a hit and a run during a 9-run fifth-inning in the Tigers’ 14-7 win. His teammates joked that maybe that would be a new pre-game routine moving forward.

Drzycimski laughed it off.

“That was a first,” he said, “and hopefully a last.”

Gilbert’s Joe Drzycimski got locked in the home dugout bathroom before Friday’s Class 3A semifinal game against DCG



‘We just wanted to come out fighting’

The champions all had unique stories, too.

Don Bosco won Class 1A, the school’s first state baseball title in 42 years. The Dons beat Newman, the three-time defending state champions, 3-2, thanks to a sixth-inning RBI double from Charlie Hogan, who entered the game with just three hits all summer.

Van Meter repeated in Class 2A, downing Des Moines Christian, 6-0. The Bulldogs’ coach, Mike Kennedy, left for an 18-month deployment after Van Meter’s semifinal loss in 2018 and missed their run to a title a year ago. He coached an inspired group this year after a teammate from last year’s title team, Harrison Smith, died in February.

Norwalk won 3A for the first time since 2009, back when Matt Dermody pitched the Warriors to the crown. The same day Norwalk held off Gilbert to win the title, Dermody signed with the Chicago Cubs.

Johnston won 4A, their fifth title all-time. The Dragons outlasted Ankeny in an 11-8 thriller, the highest-scoring 4A title game ever. They flipped a 7-3 hole into their second title in four years on a 5-run sixth inning, fueled by the mantra “see ball, hit ball” made famous by longtime assistant Craig Kruger, who died from a heart attack in mid-July.

“We just wanted to come out fighting,” Johnston’s Jacob Wolver said, “and that’s what we did.”

They played baseball here last week, and all summer. Real, meaningful baseball games, and there was a simple joy that came with it all. Because a pandemic can’t change the fact that it’s 90 feet to first, that pitchers must throw 60 feet, 6 inches, that it will always be three strikes and you’re out.

Perhaps, because of these weird times, there was more appreciation for that consistency this season. For 62 days this summer, baseball returned, and Iowa embraced it. And for the final eight days, Principal Park saw it at its best.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Close games, locked bathrooms, record attendance: Looking back at the 2020 Iowa state baseball tournament

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