Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - While the Gastineau Channel Little League Major All-Star state runner-ups were quarantining in Anchorage as a result of positive COVID-19 tests, the Alaska state champion Knik Little League was knocked out of the Northwest Regional Little League tournament before it played a game when a member of the team tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.
Juneau and Knik had just played an exciting state championship series last week and this was the last thing either of the teams expected.
Duane Bell, the district administrator for Little League in Southeast Alaska, said it was unfortunate but added that coaches followed the mitigation plans implemented to the best of his knowledge.
"Yes we had some positive cases," Bell said earlier this week. "Yes we have a team that is quarantining in Anchorage. Yes we have an Anchorage District 1 team go to the regional tournament and a kid tested positive and the team got put into a hotel and eliminated from the tournament. Once one kid is positive the whole team is done because they are all exposed. Currently they are in quarantine for 10-14 days and when they are done they come back home. That is the reality of it. Yes there are mitigation plans all along and that is what caught the positive cases was the mitigation plans."
The Knik Little League team was disqualified Saturday in San Bernardino, California, two days before their first scheduled game, a Monday contest against the Washington state champion.
“Little League International has been informed of at least one positive COVID-19 test within the Alaska State Little League Baseball tournament team at the Northwest Region Tournament," Little League officials said in a statement released Saturday. “In consultation with and at the recommendation of our medical advisors, Little League International has notified the team that it will no longer be able to participate in the tournament.”
State health department data released Wednesday showed most of Alaska under a high alert level, including Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Juneau. That assessment is based on case counts over the past seven days.
According to the state health department, about 75% of Juneau residents 12 or older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. About 55% of residents 12 or older in Anchorage are fully vaccinated and just 37.2% in the Matanuska-Susitna region are.
Knik, a team made up youths ages 10-12 from Chugiak and Eagle River, was one of eight Nortwest Region tournament teams vying for a berth in the Little League World Series.
No other Northwest Region team has been disqualified, but a number of teams at other regional tournaments have been eliminated because of positive results to COVID-19 tests. At the Southwest Region tournament in Waco, Texas, three teams were eliminated - Oklahoma, Mississippi and Texas-East.
At the West Region tournament, also in San Bernardino, there was a positive test within the Hawaii team, but the team was allowed to continue playing with vaccinated players only.
While Little League International did not immediately respond to emailed questions about its COVID-19 policies, Bell commented on the Alaska District 2 COVID-19 mitigation policies.
"The minimum that our team had to follow was mask in the dugout," he said. "They didn't have to have them when they were out on the field but once they got into the dugout they had to put masks on. The managers and coaches also had to have masks on in the dugout. If they were to go out in public then they had to wear masks. What it comes down to is those managers and coaches in those dugouts and those leagues that are enforcing this stuff to be strong and don't accept anything less. Do they? Absolutely! Because there are so many people out there that believe this is a joke or it is not real or whatever and for whatever reason so they don't take it serious."
Bell intimated his own contraction of the virus in 2019.
"Oh boy it got me," he said. "Really, really bad. I consider myself one of the lucky ones that lived through it."
In a Facebook post, Knik Little League coach Mike McNeil on Sunday said none of the players were “manifesting any signs of illness.”
“Unless you’ve been in their shoes it’s impossible to understand the level of disappointment and heartbreak these kids are feeling,” he said.
The entirety of the post reads as follows:
"I want to make a statement to thank the Eagle River and Chugiak community for the outpouring of support for our team over the past few weeks. These boys have fought so hard to earn their way into the US Northwest Regional tournament here in San Bernardino, CA only to have their dreams of competing and playing live on national television ripped away by a mandatory Covid testing policy for a group of children who are not manifesting any signs of illness. Unless you’ve been in their shoes it’s impossible to understand the level of disappointment and heartbreak these kids are feeling. As a father and coach it’s unbearable to watch these kids go through it. We will make the best of things and are determined to enjoy our time together in CA as we await our return flight home in a few days. To our team parents I am grateful for your unconditional support and know you all are suffering equally along with your own boys. Coach Mike McNeil"
Bell acknowledged that Juneau coaches and players had tested positive, but where the virus was caught is not known.
"At some point maybe your luck runs out," Bell commented. "I think that is pretty much what happened. When the state don't mandate stuff, it is hard for us to mandate. We felt it was important that we had some mitigation. The minimum was mask in the dugout, mask in public, on the field they don't have to mask but any time they are in groups they would have to mask. That was our requirement. As far as I know they abided by that. I don't have any information to say they did not do that. Where they got it from we do not know. Same with the Anchorage kids, we don't know if they got it from the Juneau kids or the Juneau kids got it from them because the only time they were together was on the field playing."
Normally teams exchange district little league pins before the game and shake hands and have a picnic after the series.
"They didn't even shake hands after games," Bell said. "We didn't do the pin trades because of the close contact. And during the picnic the two teams did not hang out together. I don't think Knik even went to the picnic."