Pioneers set to start season on time

Western Nebraska Pioneers’ Andrei Stoyanow pitches during an Expedition League baseball game against the Casper Horseheads on Saturday, June 15, 2019, at Oregon Trail Park Stadium in Gering.

Western Nebraska Pioneers owner Chuck Heeman has closed the team offices amid the coronavirus outbreak, but anticipates the season starting on time on May 26.

Heeman said the office closure won’t hamper the Pioneers putting a team on the field.

“The fortunate thing is that our players — pretty much all of them — were recruited last fall,” Heeman said. “Really, our roster has been set since Thanksgiving with a few exceptions. We’ve picked up a couple guys since then.”

With all of the college spring sports having been canceled, Heeman said the team’s biggest job is keeping in contact with the players.

“Right now, with all of the college seasons being canceled, our goal is to keep in touch with these guys. Coach (Ryan) Sires is keeping in touch with these guys, too, to make sure they’re still coming. To my knowledge, all of them are, but with this thing going on, nobody really knows,” he said.

The Pioneers start date of May 26 coincides with the start of Major League Baseball, which delayed its season because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Heeman did say the season’s start date could be pushed back, but he is hopeful that it will stay the same.

“We get the same information as everybody else,” he said. “We’re not privy to any inside information. We’re going with the guideline of what Major League Baseball is planning. They’re planning on playing regular season games that same weekend, but they’re also looking at two to three weeks of spring training. I don’t know that they know anymore than anybody else, but if you believe the experts the worst of this passes in another four to six weeks. It’s going to hang around for a while.”

Heeman said he expects that the layoff to have a slight affect on the players.

“I think some because they will not have played games for two to two and half months. We follow all of these guys on their Twitter feeds and social media, most of them are out there doing something,” he said. “They may not be doing it in groups, but they’re running. They’re going to the cage and hitting. Most of them have setups at home.”

No team will go into the season with an advantage over the others, Heeman said.

“The thing about that is, we’ll all be in the same boat. All 10 of the Expedition League teams. It’s not like three of them are out there playing everyday and the rest of us aren’t. We are on an even playing field there. These guys have been playing since they were 6 years old, so they know what to do.”

When the Pioneers hit the field for the first time this season, they will be under the guidance of first-year head coach Ryan Sires, who comes to the Pioneers from Yakima Valley Community College in Yakima, Washington. Sires takes over for Jimmy Turk, who guided the Pioneers for the team’s first two years of play in the Expedition League.

“I interviewed 12 people. He was clearly the guy I wanted. I think he’s put together a strong team. If you look at the schools these kids are coming from, I think it’s a very strong roster,” Heeman said.

The Pioneers will be behind on ticket sales with the offices being closed, Heeman said.

“This is prime season for getting our tickets on sale, locking down our corporate partners, the new people who want to come in and be represented at the ballpark and locking in our groups for picnics and fundraisers,” Heeman said.

It isn’t just the Pioneers’ office closure putting a damper on the organization getting everything set for the upcoming season.

“With nobody really knowing what’s going on, and very few people in the offices anywhere in town, it’s going to be difficult the next two weeks to get those things locked in. Once this starts to settle down and we’re clear. And we get the word from the people that know that we’re gong to be moving forward, we’re going to have to scramble quite a bit and even into the season to catchup on the things we’re missing out on right now.”

Heeman, though, said they won’t be starting from square one once things get back to normal.

“The good thing is here with the Pioneers. We’ve already got a lot of people already lined up. We’ve got a long list of people who want to do party decks. We’ve got groups that are coming out. It’s just a matter of getting those people locked in once we get the all-clear. It is going to be a mad scramble when we hit that point,” he said.

Heeman said he could start selling tickets, but it wouldn’t be right in the current atmosphere surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

“We’ve got games where we could put tickets on sale right now,” he said. “I just don’t know that it is appropriate to do that right now with everything that’s going on. I don’t want to be the guy sitting around asking people to buy tickets when they’re trying to feed their families. That’s much, much more important than anything we’re doing.”

Heeman said he just hopes that everything falls into place for the season to start on time.

“If what the experts say holds true, we’ll be able to start on time,” he said. “We’ll never put anybody in an unsafe situation. There’s no way we’re going to do that just to have a ballgame. Our league has a weekly conference call with all of the owners and we’ll have more if needed. The plan is start on May 26 unless there is some reason not to. We’ll never put anybody in danger.”

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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