Rich Groppenbacher

Rich Groppenbacher, a longtime coach for his son, Cash, in Chandler National Little League, said it was difficult to have the season taken away due to the pandemic. (Photo courtesy Rich Groppenbacher) 

Jen Johnson, president of Gilbert American Little League, said there is still some hope for 12-year-olds this season as a state tournament may take place at a later date should it be approved. (Photo courtesy Jen Johnson)

The coronavirus pandemic, at one point, put the entire world on pause to mitigate the threat of the illness.

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 back in March. 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.

“It’s been extremely hard,” said Jen Johnson, president of Gilbert American Little League. “With so many social distancing rules and regulations, we couldn’t follow CDC guidelines and still have a season.”

Johnson announced the cancellation of the spring Gilbert American Little League season shortly after Little League International announced cancellation of the World Series. Despite receiving the option to still play a season should it be deemed safe by local health officials, Johnson said there was too much risk to the players and their families. 

Johnson said 12-year-olds in the league took the news especially hard, given it being their last season playing on smaller fields and to make it to the Little League World Series. Last season, Gilbert American’s All-Star team placed third in state. 

This year, they were looking forward to improving. 

While regular-season play has been canceled, there may still be an opportunity for the majors group to make a run at a state title. Johnson said Arizona Little League is in the process of drawing up two plans to host a 12-year-old tournament later this summer or in the fall. The plans have been sent to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey for approval. 

“The plan is to possible hold a tournament in July or most likely October or November,” Johnson said. “For me, it was great to mention that to the parents because there is still hope. We really want to give them a chance to end their time in Little League on a positive note.”

The initial cancellation caught some players by surprise. Others, however, saw it coming.

“I kind of knew it would happen from the start because everything else was canceled,” said Cash Groppenbacher, who will attend Bogle Junior High in the fall. “I will still have more opportunities in junior high, high school and maybe even college.”

Cash, who was looking forward to carrying on the legacy of Chandler National’s All-Star success, took the news better than other 12-year-olds in the league. 

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.”

Cash has the ability to come back and play again in juniors next year. However, the participation rate drops significantly at that level. 

“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 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. 

Phil Cardis, the president of the Red Mountain Little League in Mesa, tried to hold off as long as he could to somehow give this year’s 12-year-olds an outlet to play. 

“Little League International encouraged leagues to try and have something as long as it was safe to do so,” Cardis said. “We were kind of holding on to the hope we would be able to do something.”

Cardis had to break the news to his son, George, a 12-year-old in his last season with Little League. Geor ge 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.”

Chandler American League also announced cancellations, as well as all five of the other leagues in Mesa, Gilbert National and Ahwatukee.

“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.”