While the girls and boys track and field teams at North St. Paul High School were practicing, an errant softball – thrown as players loosened their arms in a hallway -- slammed loudly against the outside of a closed gymnasium door. Such is life when rotten spring weather puts the kibosh on outdoor sports and forces everyone inside.
Like every other school in Minnesota, athletes at North St. Paul are waiting for outdoor conditions to improve so they can use the track, baseball, softball and lacrosse fields, golf courses and tennis courts. In the meantime, the Polars (their nickname is quite fitting this spring) are stuck in the school gym, teams rotating through from 3 p.m. until late in the evening.
“I guess what we really work on is trying to make it fun for the kids, keep a good, positive perspective. They didn’t sign up to run in the gym all spring,” said Polars girls and boys track coach Todd Wallert.
Baseball, softball and track teams have been practicing since March 12, with other sports beginning a week or two later. There has definitely been frustration at being stuck indoors, but coaches and athletes are making the most of it.
“I’ve been playing since seventh grade so this is not new to me. I’ve experienced the indoor practices for quite some time,” said Polars senior softball player Aidan Crotty. “I think our coaches are pretty unique in the fact that they try to make things creative and fun for us. We’ve done yoga, we’ve done laser tag; they try to find ways for it to be fun and creative because there’s only so much you can do in a gym space.”
Indoor workouts can be highly structured and organized. During a two-hour practice earlier this week, the North St. Paul softball team used two batting cages that were lowered from the ceiling, along with several other batting stations on one side of the gym and a mock field with plastic bases on the other side of a partition. The gymnasium was filled with the sounds of bats striking balls and balls smacking into gloves.
“We get a lot of hitting in, we get some fielding in, some infield, some outfield,” said Tom Nemo, the softball co-coach along with Cliff Charpentier. “It’s not like you’re outside. You can work on baserunning, sliding, but you’re limited. You’ve got to make the best of it.”
Because of the weather and what will be a rushed regular season once games begin, the executive committee of the MSHSL board of directors has approved changes for baseball and softball, allowing doubleheaders with two five-inning games (instead of the normal seven innings) and playing games with one umpire if a waiver is approved by the MSHSL.
The most important thing right now is patience, waiting for snow to melt and the ground to dry.
“For field events, it’s honestly the worst,” said North St. Paul junior Noah Hurley, a pole vaulter and triple jumper. “For pole vaulting, we don’t have an indoor pit. We can only work on certain parts of our technique. We have the pit ready to vault when the snow melts, but it keeps on snowing. Also, we can’t get out to the jumping pits because there’s still snow on the track.”
Senior Jebeh Cooke, who runs the 100, 200 and on relay teams, said, “It’s kind of hard for sprints, because these are hardwood floors (in the gym) and the floors are really slippery so you can fall because we can’t use our spikes. So to get used to the blocks and the actual sprints, it’s going to be harder to do it in actual meets. And meets get pushed back because of the weather.”
The track teams were first in the gym after school Monday, followed by softball, baseball and lacrosse. The Polars golf teams can use domes and nets to work on their game, tennis players have been using the hockey arena across the street from the school as well as the University of Minnesota’s Baseline Tennis Center.
“We’re fortunate,” said North St. Paul activities director Jed Helwig. “We don’t have a big space but we have gym space to be able to offer this. And of course, we use the hallways, which isn’t unique for anybody at this point in time.”
At the beginning of track practice, the athletes sat on the gym floor as Wallert talked. He presented Zebra Cakes to Hurley and Shaliciah Jones for being named “athletes of the meet” at a recent indoor competition at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. That has been the team’s only meet during a month of practice.
Wallert, who has been coaching for 33 years, said this spring’s weather ranks among the three worst he has experienced.
“Over spring break we had one day when we were out on the track and it was actually nice,” he said. “But that was before April 1. You just kind of stick with it and make it fun. They’ll get through it. Pretty soon we’ll be outside and it will be a regular year.”Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn