The Boys of Summer return to the field

Members of the Evanston Outlaws AA American Legion team warm up prior to practice Wednesday at Russ Kesterson Field. The team found out last Sunday that they would be able to begin practice for the 2020 season, though there are restrictions in place for the immediate future. (HERALD PHOTO/Don Cogger)

Mother Nature must be a baseball fan — or at least a fan of the Evanston Outlaws.

Uinta County has enjoyed one of the nicest weeks of the spring as far as weather is concerned, and that it coincided with Governor Mark Gordon’s edict to begin lifting COVID-19 restrictions across the state may almost seem like divine intervention. American Legion baseball teams statewide were given the OK to begin practice Monday, May 3, albeit with safety restrictions in place, and the Evanston American Legion teams took full advantage.

“The guys were grinning ear-to-ear, for sure,” said Evanston skipper Chad Thompson with a chuckle. “They’re all pretty excited to get going, see what they can do.”

Practices Monday and Tuesday were limited to nine people allowed on the field at once, including players and coaches, with practices broken up into multiple fields. That all changed Wednesday, with the county’s decision to increase the number of people that can gather from 10 to 20 — the Outlaws were able to hold their first full practice Wednesday afternoon.

“The first couple of days — where we only had six or seven kids on the field at once — were difficult,” Thompson said. “But with the county opening up, we got the clearance to have a group of 20, so we were able to get everyone out there. That started things to gel for us.”

As the Outlaws work their way into game shape, the coaching staff will keep on eye on May 15 — the date the governor is scheduled to release the state’s upgraded guidelines. Thompson said he’s hoping the number of people who can safely gather will be increased to 50, allowing actual games to be played — though unfortunately without spectators, at least to start. And even if the decision to increase the number is made, it will still be up to individual counties whether to immediately adhere to it.

“May 15 is kind of where we’re at, with the hopes of the governor bumping that number up to the 50 mark so we can start playing ball,” Thompson said. “You never know, because each county may be different. We could have a game in, say, Laramie County — they may not be bumped up yet. It’s definitely going to be interesting.”

The Outlaws AA club was initially scheduled to open the season with a non-conference home game against Jackson April 25. Should the increase in group size come to fruition, Evanston will travel to Jackson the weekend of May 16 for a tournament, with games scheduled against Cody, Riverton, Green River and Jackson. Thompson — who will be assisted this season by coaches Jason Mitchell, Daryl Fisher and Steve Moyles — said it’s his hope that the schedule will continue pretty much as planned, though there will be a few changes.

“We’ve had one change already,” he explained. “We were scheduled to go into Utah for Memorial Day weekend — with some of the quarantine regulations, I don’t know that we’ll be able to do that. Gillette had an opening in their tournament that same weekend, so we went ahead and took that instead. Other than that, the schedule is about the same, but I’m betting that will change.”

For the Outlaws, the focus now will be on using the time until May 15 to get players’ arms in shape, should games finally commence.

“Right now is making sure we’re getting arms in shape and healthy,” Thompson said. “That’s our biggest thing. Everything else can fall into place, but arms are the big one. If they break us free [to play games] and we don’t feel like the kids are ready to go throw 40-50 pitches, we’re not going to go. We’re not going to hurt someone to try and get games in. That’s probably our biggest concern at the moment.”

The Outlaws finished with a 22-26 record last season, and went 1-2 in the state tournament, beating Cody but losing in the double-elimination tournament to Sheridan and Laramie. Thompson said this year’s team will be a solid mix of younger players and veterans, led by its three returning college-age players — Reid Gross, Ryan Fisher (a second-team All-State selection last season) and Brendan Thompson.

“The guys are starting to come together — we’re waiting on a few of the college kids to see what’s in store for the summer for them, because you never know,” coach Thompson said. “But all three of them are back, we’re able to plug them in. It’s definitely nice to have their leadership there. We have three or four seniors that will graduate this year, then we have several juniors that are going to be seniors. No rosters are set yet, but we’re planning on about 15 players for the AA program.”

Brendan Thompson said he’s excited to be back for one more season, and is encouraged by the younger players on this year’s roster.

“With the whole coronavirus pandemic, we were afraid we weren’t going to have a baseball season,” he said. “It just feels good to be back out on the field. I’m excited to see how we do this year — we had a lot of kids graduate, so it’s definitely a younger team. But we’ve been working well in practice together, and I’m excited to see what this team can do.”

The Outlaws AA squad will carry 18 players on the roster for tournaments, meaning some of the kids playing at the B level will have the opportunity to prove themselves at AA as the season progresses.

“We can double-roster three kids — kids that can play for the B team as well as AA — we’ll do that, we just don’t know who those kids will be quite yet,” Thompson said. “Throughout the year, we’ll be bouncing kids around. They may be doing B one weekend, and the next weekend, they may come up and go to a tournament with us. You get into a five or six-game tournament, you need those extra arms.”

The Outlaws would like to get in 30-35 games this summer, though that will depend on the availability of other teams. Out-of-state travel most likely will be out of the question, so Thompson said his team will take advantage of as many in-state opportunities as they can leading up to the state tournament, set for early August in Laramie.

“We were talking last night that we have six conference games throughout the season that basically seed us for state,” Thompson said. “Ideally, we want to win every game we play, of course. But if we go 6-40 — and those six wins are the conference games — we’ll take it.”

Thompson went on to say he believes that, unlike years past, teams at the AA level may be on more even ground due to the COVID-19 restrictions that prevented any preseason contests.

“We don’t have that indoor facility that the bigger communities like Casper and Cheyenne have,” he explained. “They can start in January and get full practices in. We have gyms we practice in, and we make it work. But those bigger teams always seem to be a little bit ahead of us. Last year, we were on game four when we played Gillette, and they were on game 27. That’s just the nature of the weather.”

At the end of the day, however, coaches are realizing they’re in unchartered territory as they ease out of the pandemic — a successful season will be dependent on everyone working together.

“All of the AA coaches have been texting or emailing each other, helping each other out,” Thompson said. “I had the Jackson coach text me the other day, because I don’t believe they could start practice until yesterday [Wednesday]. So he was asking me how practice was going, did I have any ideas — because this is all new to all of us. It’s good to be able to shoot ideas back and forth, what works and what doesn’t.”

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