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March 29, 2013

Coaches and players must make due as cool conditions cross into spring season

By Mike Moore
C & G Sports Writer

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The scheduled start to practice had come and gone, and slowly, with a smile, Ralph Haney simply accepted it.

His Clawson High baseball team was scattered throughout the school gymnasium, but stretching arms and recapping a day of classes was about as much work that could possibly be done.

Even throwing a ball back and forth was impossible.

“You have to love practicing inside,” Haney joked.

As he sat down in the athletic office tucked in the back corner of the gym, he peered out at a host of students and teachers still wrapping up a dodge ball game.

“I wish we were outdoors, but so does everyone else,” he added. “But when the weather’s like this, what choice do you really have?”

It is what it is
There’s little mystery surrounding the start of the MHSAA spring season, with dates, more or less, locked into the same week every year.

But predicting the weather around said time is virtually impossible.

A year ago, the unseasonably warm start meant batting practice was had on a field, not in a cage. Ground balls were picked from dirt, not parquet flooring, and golfers could, well, golf.

“We haven’t hit a kid a fly ball, yet,” Southfield-Lathrup softball coach Bruce Lenington said. “Some of the first balls that we’re going to be seeing will be in game situations (after spring break), and that’s tough.”

When the first practices started this spring, snow still littered the ground and temperatures struggled to reach the 30s. And unlike most spring seasons, when a few good days are scattered in, allowing coaches to get at least a peak at their squads’ true potential outdoors, this spring has been particularly challenging.

Another curve ball thrown at coaches is, just when the thermometer was predicted to reach 50 for the first time since spring practice began, many coaches scheduled the week off for spring break.

“You just have to bear with it and do what you can,” Utica Eisenhower golf coach Ryan Decardenas said. “You can still work productively.”

“It’s tough to gauge exactly what type of team we have right now,” Berkley High baseball coach Jordan Gruppen said. “I mean, things look good, but we’re working inside the gym. You can only tell so much until you get outside. Same as everyone else, though.”

The fact that everyone is facing the same dilemma may be the only thing keeping coaches from pulling their hair out.

Brian Zawislak and his Troy High soccer team have played twice this year, but those are two of the few days anything has happened outside.

With gym time at a premium, he’s been forced to get creative.

“We’ve had to focus on some team-building aspects, doing some non-soccer things, such as a yoga practice,” he said with a laugh. “You have to find ways to stay engaged.”

“We have a great space here and we do utilize our indoor area, and I think it helped us, believe it or not,” Lenington said. “For us, we have to focus on those basic fundamentals of throwing and catching. Where we are as a program right now, we actually needed the time (inside). So for us, it didn’t really set us back. It helped us a little bit, in my opinion.”

Chippewa Valley track coach Terry Wilson said he “made the best” of his added indoor time by having his squad do more strength training than it’s done in the past.

To play or not to play
The weather, naturally, hampers some teams and some sports more than others.

A soaked or soggy field can still be used by a soccer or lacrosse team, for example, but not by a baseball, softball or golf team.

So, practice quality aside, coaches and administrators must still debate the benefit of even attempting games when the MHSAA deems it allowable.

“They call baseball players the boys of summer. Well, I call these guys the boys of spring,” Harrison Township L’Anse Creuse lacrosse coach Don Roda said. “They know they’ll probably have to play in some cold and other bad weather. Back in the day, we used to shovel snow off the fields and get after it.”

“You want to get outside and play, even if you have to force yourself to,” Bishop Foley baseball coach Buster Sunde said. His team, along with nine others, is taking part in a spring break tournament that was scheduled to begin April 1. “It’s such a short season, you have to go for it. You want to maximize the time you have to get into your groove as early as possible.”

There is, of course, the flip side of that equation.

Gruppen didn’t schedule any games until April 9 for his Berkley team.

“The weather never cooperates, so why bother?” he said with a laugh.

Nancy Malinoski scheduled her Farmington Hills Mercy softball team’s first doubleheader for April 9, even giving her team a week off before that.

“It’s March, and with what the weather usually is, there was no reason to force a game,” she said while preparing for a few days rest during spring break.

Playoff payoff?
While some coaches say getting in those precious early games prior to spring break is vital to a successful season, others say they’ll be ready when the weather finally breaks.

“The dream season is to play some early games,” Zawislak said. “That way, you’re not playing three games a week and risking wearing your team down.”

Clawson High golf coach Brett Hansen had his team practicing in the school cafeteria for the first week or so.

“I have my whole team back from last year, so the boys will know what to expect for a varsity match,” Hansen said. “When we do finally get outside, I will most definitely focus practices on short game and putting drills as this is the area that dramatically affects scoring.”

Zawislak also mentioned what other coaches undoubtedly keep in the back of their minds at all times — safety.

“There’s been times when the field has been all right, but with the wind chill in the teens, I don’t know what good is going to come of running around in weather that cold,” he said. “Risking player health, in the long run, really isn’t worth it.”

Which is why patience can sometimes be the greatest virtue.

“Once we get back, we’ll get after it,” Malinowski said. “You get into the swing of things pretty quickly. We’ll get a doubleheader in, play a few days later, and then we’re off and running.”

Weather permitting.

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Mike Moore at mmoore@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1038. Twitter Follow Mike on Twitter.