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Valley teams get outdoors early to practice for spring sports

West Valley High School senior Shelby Schafer, 18, works on her javelin technique during spring track practice, Wednesday. (Colin Mulvany)
West Valley High School senior Shelby Schafer, 18, works on her javelin technique during spring track practice, Wednesday. (Colin Mulvany)

As signs of spring go, they tend to come and go just like, well, the weather. But once it shows itself, it’s impossible to keep thinking winter thoughts.

It’s the unmistakable sound of a leather-wrapped ball smacking solidly into a leather glove. Couple it with the sound of a fungo bat and it’s a veritable spring symphony.

At West Valley this week, and at the rest of Spokane Valley’s high schools, those sounds have been heard since Monday, the first day the WIAA allows spring sports teams to practice. And that, in itself, is a spring rarity.

It’s been three seasons since the Eagles have been able to hold an outside practice in the first week of the season, baseball coach Don O’Neal said. Outside for the entire first week? Much, much longer.

“This is great!” O’Neal gushed, his face turned toward the gray sky. “We’ve cut practices a little short, but it is so worth it!”

The field is in uncharacteristically good shape for the first week. No trace of snow and recent warm weather allowed the field to thaw and drain properly. The footing is good and, thanks to a generous application of drying agents, the infield is dirt and not mud.

The pitcher’s mound, rebuilt since last season, is in good shape, and that translates into productive practice time.

When spring practice starts before winter has finished, pitchers move indoors to throw from makeshift pitcher’s mounds made of plywood. They approximate the angle, but never match the feel of a dirt mound. Batters hit in indoor cages, but it’s not the same thing as sinking cleats into real dirt and digging in against a batting practice fastball.

Countless hours of work conditioning the fields pays dividends this week for O’Neal, just as it does for baseball and softball coaches around the Valley.

In the Northwest, being a baseball coach also means being a groundskeeper. Not only do you need to know how to teach the hit and run, you need to know how to make the field drain and the infield game-ready.

As if to punctuate that double duty, O’Neal has a habit of grooming the infield dirt while he talks to his fielders. He regularly picks up an out-of-place pebble and tosses it to the sideline, lest it stick around and cause a bad hop for his shortstop.

“All that work has been worth it,” he insists.

Pitchers line the left field line, with a half-dozen catchers squatting side by side while the young pitching staff works on its mechanics.

“We’re going to have lots of pitching this year,” O’Neal said. “Some of it’s pretty young, though.

“The thing of it is, the Great Northern League is going to be awfully tough. East Valley has (coach) John Phelan’s son, J.T., back – in fact, he has his top two starters back from last year. And I think Clarkston has their entire team back from last year.”

But if O’Neal is concerned about league games, it doesn’t show – not on a February afternoon with his infield working on fielding ground balls to their backhand side, the outfield chasing down fungoes in a real outfield and his young pitchers working on fastball after fastball under the watchful eye of several assistant coaches.

A block away from where the Eagles take infield practice, Gabe Escobar is well into soccer practice.

Soccer is supposed to be played in any weather, so if the field is cleared of drifted snow, it’s clear enough for practice. So the odds of soccer being outdoors and ready to work already were high.

“If you talk to the groundhog, it was 100 percent,” Escobar said with a laugh.

In his second year coaching boys soccer at West Valley, Escobar is making solid progress with his recruiting.

“I have 31 guys signed up and that’s an improvement over my first year,” he said. “We’d like to get to about 40 kids.”

While some programs will need to make significant cuts to their initial turnout this week, Escobar is beyond all that.

“We’re keeping everybody,” he said. “We’ll just put them in first team and second team and get to work.”