Technically, the first day of spring practice for area high schools happens roughly three weeks before the official start of spring – a fact that Mother Nature delights in pointing out on a regular basis.
There have been years when area baseball teams haven’t seen their home field on the first day of practice – they’ve been buried under significant layers of snow. A year ago, after a freakishly snowy winter, Freeman managed just one game on its home field because of drifting snow.
For area coaches, this unseasonably mild winter has made for a nice change. Instead of looking out over a field of white and wondering when it will finally melt, spring coaches can look out at their playing fields and see grass that’s already starting to green up.
“This is my 10th year at West Valley and this is the first time we’ve been able to get out on our own field on the first day,” Don O’Neal said. “My assistant coach and I have been out working on the field since January and the field is in really good shape.”
Across the Valley, University softball coach Jon Schuh hasn’t had the same luck O’Neal’s had, but the Titans also started the season outdoors.
“It took a while for the frost layer to finally break,” Schuh said. “We had that cold spell and that kept the ground from thawing out. The way our fields are, until the ground thaws they can’t drain water properly. It takes a while and our varsity softball field is the last one to thaw completely because it doesn’t get as much sunshine.”
Most years find baseball and softball players practicing in their respective gyms. Schools have indoor batting cages that helps hitters begin work on their swings. Pitchers can always throw indoors, and most schools have indoor pitching mounds so baseball hurlers can begin to get comfortable.
“I don’t think it really hurts to have kids workout inside,” Schuh said. “Pitchers can get their work in, and you can always take batting practice inside. The one area where it hurts you is that you can’t work on your defense. Taking a ground ball off the gym floor isn’t the same thing as taking one off an infield.”
Being outside, he said, will make player evaluations easier.
“It’s hard having to cut players when you haven’t been outside yet,” Schuh said. “This year we’ll be able to give everyone a better look. I’m looking forward to that.”
For baseball, O’Neal said, it’s tough to start off the season behind the competition.
“I’ve had coaches from the Tri-Cities look at me like I’m crazy when I talk about having to practice in the gym,” he laughed. “It always seems like they start right off outside, and that puts them ahead of us a little bit.”
Turns out that, aside from the lawn and garden specialist at the hardware store, area baseball and softball coaches may be some of best authorities on how to take care of your yard.
“You pretty much have to be,” O’Neal said. “You can rely on other people to take care of your field for you, but then it’s never done completely the way you want it to be. We take a lot of pride in our field and how it looks. Our players put in a lot of time taking care of our field – so much so that when we travel, they’re always checking out how other schools take care of their fields.”
In O’Neal’s tenure with the Eagles, the baseball field has been under constant upgrade. The infield dirt has been treated to annual applications of soil conditioners that aid drainage. “We had a pretty high clay content when I first got here,” O’Neal said. “It was tough to get it to drain, especially when it gets packed down a little. I always roto-till our infield and work in a product that helps it drain.
“The thing most people don’t understand that, even when you take care of it, an infield is only going to last you about 10 years. You have to keep working on it to keep it going, and part of that is giving it a chance to rest.”
Most afternoons you can find Schuh outside, working on his fields. Same with most weekends.
“It takes a lot of nights and weekends to take care of a field like this,” he said. “You can find me out here most Sundays and I spend a lot of Sunday nights out here getting things ready for the week.
“But I enjoy doing it. It makes a nice break for me, and I find it relaxing. While I’m out here working, I’m planning out my week and thinking through what we need to work on for the week ahead.”