With the onset of spring, so comes a new youth sports season. It’s normal this time of year to see kids squeeze in baseball and softball games between rainstorms, and soccer players slide around in the mud. But this year feels a little different. After two years shadowed by COVID, the energy from kids, parents, and coaches has been high. This outdoor sports season once again brought kids, family, and friends out to the fields to run around, chat on the sideline, learn, cheer and — most importantly — have fun.

When youth sports returned last fall, numbers were way down as many were hesitant to go inside and be around large groups of people. Those who did were asked to mask up. Winter sports had a similar feel, although basketball did show signs of an enthusiasm returning.

Spring has had a completely different feel. “We’ve noticed a huge increase in the number of kids that are coming to play sports,” says Lacey De Lange, president of Nooksack Youth Sports. “Families know that the social aspect is so imperative in the development of kids. With the shutdown that COVID brought to us as a society, I think families and kids are just reaching out for ways to fill that gap.”

De Lange, who has worked with the organization for seven years, has noticed kids trying out new sports because it’s a way to get out and be social, since not all activities are back yet.

Two area U-10 girls’ soccer teams face off at Northwest Soccer Fields. Photo credit: Tony Moceri

Laura Rainey Smith, president of Mount Baker Youth Sports for six years, has also seen a significant uptick in baseball numbers, which had slowly been declining in recent years. With each recent season, beginning in the fall, she’s seen numbers return to pre-COVID levels.

While there has been hesitation by some to return to large groups, those coming out are doing what they need to to be comfortable in the setting. “Some kids still wear masks, but that’s what they’re comfortable with, and everybody’s accepting of that,” says Smith. “I haven’t had any complaints of parents saying their kids are being singled out or anything. I think all the kids are just embracing it and are comfortable with wherever any individual is at.”

Nooksack and Mount Baker face off in third-grade softball. Photo credit: Heather Ensley

With kids missing out on so much the last couple of years, people have had to step up to make this opportunity available. This year, Smith stayed on as president even though her kids have all aged out. “Where we live, sports are really the thing that gets kids out of their household and gives them something to do and be excited about,” she says. “It’s really important to have sports out there that give kids a chance to be a part of something. I think sports are super valuable in teaching all kinds of lessons.”

Tony Clark, who has coached youth sports for 20 years, worked with kids through various nonprofits, and is now a teacher, shares a similar sentiment. “Sports are incredibly important because it builds character and sets you up for later in life to be a responsible adult,” he says. “Sports have been impacted like every extracurricular activity, so that human connection is kind of being lost. People are turning online instead of having a personal connection and learning from other people and other kids.”

Northwest Soccer fields filled with players and spectators on a sunny spring day. Photo credit: Tony Moceri

Most of Clark’s time working with youth has been with other people’s kids. But, with the return of youth sports, he was excited to coach his own young children and their friends, willing to do whatever it took to make sure their seasons could happen.

“The programs I’ve been with have really struggled to find coaches,” Clark says. To do his part — and then some — to ensure the kids could get out and play, he ended up coaching two basketball teams and is now coaching baseball.

As youth of all ages return to sports, it’s apparent that the time off has made what used to be normal feel new. There is still some hesitation from people to really get back out there, and De Lange has noticed a difference in skill level and overall knowledge of sports from young kids up through middle and high school ages. “There is a gap in the skill level that I’m seeing, because kids have missed two years of sports and their knowledge of the sport is a little delayed,” she says. “But I think everyone’s in the same boat, so it’s just working harder trying to get the kids caught up to where they were prior to COVID.

Brothers-in-law Jesse James and Tony Clark go through the T-ball handshake line after a game between Mount Baker and Nooksack. Photo credit: Sonya James

”And that’s not only sports-related, of course. “It’s their whole self, academically, socially, emotionally, and physically,” says De Lange. “It shows the importance of getting kids out and involved in a healthy lifestyle, mentally and physically.”

Currently, spring sports are in full swing — pun intended for those softball and baseball players. Summer leagues and camps will start soon and fall sports registrations have already begun in some leagues. Whether your child is returning to an old favorite or ready to try something new, Whatcom County has a wide range of options for them to get out and play.

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