Pioneers owner optimistic season will start July 1

Western Nebraska Pioneers’ Josh Robins pitches during an Expedition League baseball game against the Souris Valley Sabre Dogs on Saturday, July 20, 2019 at Oregon Trail Park Stadium.

All signs are pointing to a July 1 start date for the Western Nebraska Pioneers, Chuck Heeman, Pioneers owner, said.

“What’s encouraging is that the governor came out with a new set of guidelines last week, to where they’ve eliminated a lot of the distancing part as far as the seating venues go,” he said. “We would still have (to have social distancing) for entry and exit for concessions, bathrooms and things like that. As far as where people are actually sitting, they’re coming off of that a lot. What they’re telling us, at least today, is that we could operate the seating venue at 25 percent capacity.”

Heeman said he wasn’t feeling too optimistic a week ago, but that all changed with the easing of restrictions.

The stadium has a capacity of 1,000, which would limit the Pioneers to 250 fans at each game.

“That’s not enough for us to play this year. So what we’re trying to do is find creative ways to generate more seating,” Heeman said.

There is some possibility for additional seating in the lawn area by the scoreboard, he said.

“There is a grass gap between us and the Legion field,” Heeman said. “I don’t know what we do. Maybe we sell $5 bring-your-own-blanket seats. We don’t need to draw 1,000 a game this season work, especially with a shorter season.”

If the Pioneers can expand their seating to 1,500 and still draw 25% capacity, that would make it more likely the season goes on as planned, he said.

“There are ways to do it,” Heeman said. “You can have some areas lawn seating. The City of Gering has been very receptive about helping us with that.”

With a shorter season, expenses will be lower because there will be fewer bus trips and hotel stays. Which will help the Pioneers pull of a season this summer, he said.

“We do need to hit a certain number just to be able to try to do it,” Heeman said. “What we’re working on now is try to get some sort of feel for what the July restrictions will like.”

The Expedition League has to make a decision soon. The league can’t wait until June 26 to decide whether or not to play this summer, he said.

“We’ve got three teams in Nebraska, so we’re all in the same boat. They really come off of what the restrictions are for the actual seating areas, he said.

Heeman joked that the restrictions are loosening because they want Husker fans to be able to attend games at Memorial Stadium.

If all goes as planned, players and coaches will arrive around June 20 to prepare for the start of the season on July 1. The season would end August 19. The postseason could be one or two rounds of play, depending on how many teams are able to play this season, Heeman said.

The Pioneers will have close to a full schedule of games. The schedule would have them playing around 23 home games and 24 away, which is pretty close to what they played last year, Heeman said.

“If we play with all 10 teams, we’ll have two rounds,” he said. “If we’re down to six or eight teams, it will just be a one round championship series.”

Heeman said the Pioneers will have some open houses and scrimmages, so fans can go out and meet this year’s players. It will be a good opportunity go get out of the house, he said.

The Pioneers will still be able to offer concessions, they will just have to follow current guidelines, Heeman said.

“We will have restrictions. We will have to use face masks and gloves and keep people six feet apart in line,” he said. “We will have to hand people wrapped foods. Those are things that aren’t too far off of what we do now. These things are very easily adaptable.”

Another thing in the Pioneers favor is they have the ability to expand entry access to four gates, instead of the two they used in the past. There is fencing around the perimeter of the stadium with access to up the number of entry gates, he said.

Heeman said he was planning on hosting all you can eat picnic parties this summer, which he said will still be possible with some modifications.

“This year, where it’s a buffet thing, we can’t do that. We can do it in a different way. If we do this we’ll have to add some staff, so we have to account for that.”

The Pioneers would still be able to have the party decks, but would also have to modify the way they are done. Since it was buffet-style the last few years, they would have to modify the way the food is served this year. The Pioneers would have to have somebody serving the food to fans on the party deck, he said.

Jeff Van Patten is the sports editor of the Star-Herald. Jeff can be reached by calling 308-632-9050 or emailing jeff.vanpatten@starherald.com.

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