CLARION, Pa. – Spring sports season.
Those three words can be joyful to many people’s ears because it means the weather is starting to turn nicer.
But at the same time, it’s only starting to change nicer.
For every 65-degree, sunny day like Wednesday, there is the all day rain of Thursday or the snow overnight into Friday.
That means players, coaches and athletic directors of baseball and softball teams around District 9 are in for a rollercoaster ride every year, especially early in the season.
“It becomes very frustrating as days go by where we have to cancel games for indoor practices,” Clarion softball player Alexis Constantino said. “Especially since you are limited in how much space you have since you are indoors with not a lot of room.”
Keystone senior Austin Ion, a first-year baseball player, agreed with Constantino.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Ion said. “You work hard constantly, and you’re hoping for a game. But, it ends up getting canceled, and it just turns into another practice.”
Andrew Gunn, a senior on Cranberry’s baseball team, has seen his fair share of weather-related postponements.
“Being a senior who has played four four years, I have definitely had my fair share of frustration with the weather, especially in the first few weeks of the season,” Gunn said. “The weather can put a huge damper on practice and games. We are already into the second week of games this season, and, because of the rain, we have yet to even have a practice on our field. All of our practices have either been inside the gym or outside in the batting cage facility we have at Cranberry. But in terms of ground balls and situation practice on the field, we have had absolutely none whereas teams like Karns City and Moniteau have the luxury of playing at Pullman (Kelly Automotive Park) with the turf infield, which allows them to play games and have on-field practices completely regardless of rain. So all in all, the weather is extremely frustrating at times.”
Cami McNany, a softball player at A-C Valley, say the indoor practices can get boring.
“I know our coaches really preach staying focused in the gym when we are working on fundamentals because some girls just get bored and tired of it,” McNany said. “I think everyone just feels like being outside is more beneficial, and they tend to work harder outdoors than inside, which is frustrating to see as a teammate.”
The frustration felt by the players means coaches have to come up with creative ways to keep those players engaged.
“We have batting cages inside the high school,” first-year Karns City softball coach Mike Stitt said. “We work on breaking down the batting swing with technology so the girls are able to see it. We also do individual fielding positions inside, and we have been in the weight room.”
Veteran Clarion baseball coach Rob Jewett said he tries to change up the routine.
“We try to vary up different hitting drills, do live pitching in the cage and vary up fielding drills,” Jewett said. “We do a lot of throwing and fielding competitions, pitchers throw a lot of bullpens, we have a baseball Olympics and then we sometimes play different sports at the end of practice like basketball, dodgeball, ultimate frisbee, whiffle ball or volleyball. I really try to change things up so it doesn’t get so mundane for the players.”
Jewett softball counterpart at Clarion, Dan Shofestall, said he relies on his team leaders when things become mundane.
“I know I look to our team leaders to help us keep our minds on the goals ahead,” Shofestall said. “It can certainly create challenges for your team. We tell them we need to embrace the grind and control what we can control.”
Brookville baseball coach Bruce Ferry said his team hasn’t had an outdoor practice yet despite playing a couple of games in the early season.
“We do have an outdoor cage we have used, and we take infield on the old tennis court,” Ferry said. “When we are inside, we try to make it as competitive as possible. We will pick teams and take batting practice in an indoor cage. We have a scoring system and the losers cleanup or do pushups. We do our defensive drills the same way. We will count how many times we do something – good throws, bare-hand catches with tennis balls, etc. We also made up a game using a dense foam ball in which we simulate a game in the gym. It is a stupid, little game, but it gets pretty competitive and the kids love playing it. Of course, the coaches have to make it important and exciting, and I have some coaches that really enjoy that.”
Ferry said getting the players to buy into what the coaches are preaching inside is important.
“Our core group of kids really buy into it,” Ferry said. “That filters out to the others, and they really like coming to practice.”
According to Constantino, one of the things Clarion softball is doing to combat against being inside is extending practice times.
“We’ve increased our practices to three hours, which becomes exhausting but prepares us for long innings in games,” Constantino said. “Mentally, before each practice, we, as a team, ask ourselves ‘are we going to win this practice?’ That gives us a mindset that we must give 110 percent during practice and ‘win’ that practice. Then, all our hard work will pay off on the field.”
Gunn said when he can’t get outside to practice he spends a lot of time in the weight room and cardio room.
“We also have an indoor mound that I use along with my teammates,” Gunn said. “But that isn’t much like the true dirt mound on the field. Mentally, we try to stay focused and go through the indoor drills with good, focused attitudes. But after weeks in the gym due to rain, things do get monotonous. Working hard in the weight room and during practices is what I try to focus on to stay mentally sharp.”
Just as the weather can be frustrating for players and coaches, so too does it present a challenge for athletic directors.
“Considering our home field and knowing its past history, I can be lying awake at night and I know whether or not the water we are going to have on the field will be impossible to get rid of no matter how many hours we may try,” North Clarion athletic director Bonnie Wolbert said. “It’s so disappointing to relay that message to the kids who want to play so badly and then, of course, it gets passed along to the parents and grandparents. I take it personally because I am an alumna of North Clarion, and I want to put out the best conditions we can but know what we are capable of doing and not doing given our field.”
Wolbert said one of the most frustrating things for her is when the field is ready to go the day before a game and everyone is so excited to play and then the weather changes.
“Overnight it can change it in a matter of hours because of where we are located,” Wolbert said. “We have what we have and do the best we can. But I understand the disappointment of the kid who practice so hard and the coaches who want to get them out there and show what they can do. But we live in Western Pennsylvania.”
Moniteau athletic director John Stoughton said he relies heavily on his athletic trainer when it comes to things like lightning and thunder.
“Our athletic trainer has a lot of weather apps on his phone,” Stoughton said. “We rely on him. Our main concern is thunder and lightning. That causes real problems.”
Stoughton’s life, at least when it comes to his baseball team, is a bit easier because the Warriors play their home games at Kelly Automotive Park in Butler, Pa., which has a turf infield and a grass outfield.
“It definitely makes life easier,” Stoughton said. “A lot of the time, they (the people at Kelly Automotive Park) make the decision before we do as to whether we are playing or not. Although, most of the time we are the ones who end up canceling. But we cancel far less in baseball than anything else because of the luxury of that field.”
But even playing at Kelly Automotive Park isn’t a foolproof solution for either Moniteau or Karns City or A-C Valley, which also uses the field at times.
A good example was Thursday when around 1 p.m. Stoughton thought Moniteau was going to get it’s 6:30 p.m. game in with Redbank Valley before finding out a half hour later that the game wasn’t going to be played.
When a game gets canceled, the real work of the athletic director starts, finding a makeup date that works for both schools.
“It can get real frustrating,” Stoughton said. “The nice part is the athletic directors work well together. We make it happen somehow.”
According to Wolbert, many factors go into rescheduling a game.
“Every single week up until the week of May 15, I already have our baseball team playing three times a week,” Wolbert said. “Throw in the Easter break where you don’t want to ruin people’s family plan by having the kids play Wednesday or Thursday and it can get complicated. With already having three games a week, we are going to have to switch to playing on Saturdays, which I try to avoid. And then you have the pitching issue in baseball. Being a small school, we only have so many pitchers. That factors into the mix and how much rest time they need to have by PIAA rules. When you start to play four games a week, you lose your best pitchers for good games.”
According to Wolbert, her and other athletic directors need to be as understanding as possible.
“That’s what we do,” Wolbert said. “All the people I work with whether from the KSAC or outside the KSAC like Brookville or DuBois Central Catholic, we all work really well together. We ask when is it possible to replay the game? Do we really want to have back-to-back games? We don’t want to put players in harm’s way, so we have to work together to try to accommodate each other.”