John's Journal
Weather Or Not: Spring Sports Waiting Game Goes On4/9/2013
From the Canadian border to the Iowa state line, from the Dakotas to Wisconsin, the story is the same for high school sports across Minnesota: Next to nothing is happening. A spring that is quietly knocking on the door – but has yet to step through -- has put a wet and chilly damper on all outdoor activities.

Golfers are confined to hitting balls indoors, baseball and softball teams use parking lots as places to toss balls around, tennis players await dry courts, lacrosse teams check the forecast and sigh and a handful of track athletes (mostly distance runners) can get out and run while everybody else simply sits, waits and hopes for spring to finally arrive.

“Boy, it’s getting monotonous for our kids,” said Bruce Remme, the athletic director at Marshall High School in southwestern Minnesota, where the school day ended early Tuesday because of a winter storm. “I feel bad for them. But everybody’s in the same boat. There’s only so much you can do indoors.”

There is still plenty of snow in northern Minnesota, while the ground is relatively snow-free in many parts of southern Minnesota. But the ground remains frozen even in spots where there is no snow, and games are being cancelled and postponed at such a rapid rate that longtime coaches and administrators have trouble recalling a spring this miserable.

“I can’t remember having it this bad, this late,” said Jeff Whitney, who has been the athletic director at Rochester Mayo for 23 years and was the school’s baseball coach before that. “Obviously we have rainy days here and there every spring, but this is as bad as I’ve seen it this late.

“Once you feel like you’re going to get started, you take a look at the forecast and there’s more to come. Usually, right around this week you get started and then you’ll have some hit and miss dates. That’s the frustrating part of it; we just can’t get started.”

At Farmington High School south of the Twin Cities, only six outdoor sporting events have been held this month, with 33 others cancelled or postponed.

AT THIEF RIVER FALLS in the northwest part of the state, large snowbanks near the high school athletic fields have thawed slightly and refrozen, forming blocks of ice that stand six feet high or more.

“We just have no way to remove them,” said Prowlers athletic director Mike Biermaier. “I was kicking a snowbank that connects our softball bleachers to the concession stand, thinking, “No way this whole thing can be ice.’ It’s unbelievable.”

The Thief River Falls track has a unique look these days, as well. The track has been cleared of snow; that means there are eight black running lanes, with at least a foot of snow just outside lane eight.

“We’ve had a couple of practices on the track,” Biermaier said. “(Monday) we did not go out because it was 30 degrees with a wind chill of 15. Another good thing is that around our school most of the roads are dry. There’s a quiet stretch of road by our school with a 200-meter straight shot.”

Some schools have an advantage because their facilities include artificial turf fields or inflated “bubble” domes. The phones at Minnetonka High School have been ringing steadily, with other schools wanting to use the Skippers’ turf baseball field and/or turf football/soccer/lacrosse field. But there is barely enough space for the Skippers’ own teams.

“It’s insane. It is crazy,” said Minnetonka athletic director Ted Schultz. “We’re all crammed into places. We’re backlogged on our stadium field with track and lacrosse, softball has not been outside yet. It’s cold, and that throws another dynamic into it. … (Monday) was the first day it all came to a head and we didn’t have enough outdoor space to take care of everybody.”

The Irish Sports Dome in Rosemount is a hectic place this spring, with teams from Rosemount High School and elsewhere reserving space for practices in several sports.

Rosemount athletic director Mike Manning, who called this spring the worst he has seen in 18 years on the job, said his school’s spring athletes have rarely been outdoors, other than distance runners hitting the roads and sprinters sprinting across the parking lot.

“I kind of chuckle when my guys get a little restless,” he said. “There were years when we didn’t have a dome. And we’ve got a billion people running through that dome.”

TEAMS IN CROOKSTON have the advantage of the Crookston Sports Center, a three-year-old city facility. After winter sports conclude, the ice is removed from one of the center’s three hockey arenas and replaced with FieldTurf. Crookston High School baseball, softball and golf teams use the facility, as do athletes from the University of Minnesota Crookston.

“There is an allotment of times, and individual teams at best are getting an hour and a half each day,” said Crookston High School athletic director Don Donarski. “It’s super busy. You kind of take what you get.”

Teams are searching far and wide for places to play. Barring bad weather in central North Dakota, the baseball teams from Crookston and Thief River Falls are hoping to split bus and other travel costs this week and go to Bismarck -- a five-hour drive from Crookston – to play a doubleheader and then head home.

Marshall’s Remme said he chatted about the weather with Fred Almer, who coached golf teams there for more than 30 years and is now retired.

“He said he recalled a few years where it was the end of April before they got on the course but nothing recent when it’s been this bad,” Remme said. “In 2008 or so we had some late snow, it melted off and then it was a real wet spring and we seemed to cancel things every other day. But nobody seems to remember hitting the 10th of April and not being outside yet.”

In Thief River Falls,softball records show that previous teams have always been practicing outdoors by at least April 10 and track teams have had their first outdoor competition as late as April 25.

“I think we’ll be lucky to have that this year,” Biermaier said. “You look at the temperatures for the next 10 days and it just doesn’t get any better; 50 is the average temperature and we can’t even get to 30. And everywhere in the state it’s bad.”

EVEN AFTER THE SNOW disappears for good, many spring sports won’t be played until the ground has thawed. That means even more delays in finally getting seasons started.

Biermaier worries that the golf teams in Thief River Falls might have the shortest season on record. The Prowlers are scheduled to open subsection play on May 22.

“Their whole season might be trashed,” he said. “We may not get more than two or three rounds in before then.”

In the meantime, nothing can be done except wait, hope and glance outside.

“I went out and checked our fields this morning,” Rochester Mayo’s Whitney said Tuesday. “We have ducks swimming out there.”

The happiest faces in Minnesota might belong to members of the band, choir and orchestra at Crookston High School. They’re leaving later this week for a trip to Walt Disney World in Florida.

Lucky ducks.

BY THE NUMBERS

*Schools/teams John has visited: 566
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,966
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
A Veteran Minnesota Coach's Insight On The Rutgers Situation4/8/2013
Skip Dolan, who coaches boys basketball and girls softball at Annandale High School – and has coached for a total of 72 varsity seasons – spoke at a Kiwanis luncheon last week. He was asked about the situation at Rutgers University, where men’s basketball coach Mike Rice was fired after a video surfaced of him hitting, shoving and berating his players.

While speaking at the Kiwanis luncheon, Dolan was asked about Rice and what he did in his practices at Rutgers. The following are some of Dolan’s comments, provided by the Annandale Advocate…

“Coaches getting intense is part of the nature of the beast, but what made me truly sick about the Rutgers situation is that I truly believe one of the best classrooms in our schools is the athletic fields and courts.”

“Mike Rice did not take advantage of the opportunity to teach these young men of our future so many things that are going to help them be successful in life. Instead, he destroyed a golden opportunity to be a quality teacher which had nothing to do with coaching.”

“Many of you sitting out in the audience listening to me either have hired young people or will be hiring them in the future. Wouldn't you like to hire a young man or woman that was taught the following qualities every day while they were in school?

* You need to show up every day
* You need to be on time.
* You need to be accountable.
* You need to work even harder today, to be better than you were the day before.
* You need to learn to work with a group of people and tolerate all of differences. Be a team!
* You need to learn to be confident, and yet be humble.
* You will learn to respect authority.
* You will learn how to show gratitude.

“I tell you and my players, if these traits are instilled, whether a young person goes on to college or joins the work force, they will be successful. That player will have pride in themselves and their life.”

“Shame on Rutgers for destroying such a classroom!”

“It makes me sick that we have people that don't get the real meaning of what we are trying to accomplish in the coaching profession.”
An Indoor Spring (Part 3): Running, Jumping, Throwing4/5/2013
BECKER – This opening week of April has been highly interesting. I’ve been looking at online conference calendars and finding red lines through a whole bunch of events, signifying postponements and cancellations due to the rotten weather that has camped out in Minnesota.

There has been plenty of time to look at those calendars because of the lack of outdoor events. I spent Monday at the Metrodome watching baseball and Wednesday at the West St. Paul Regional Athletics Center watching softball under a smaller inflatable roof. On Thursday I ventured to the fieldhouse at Becker High School to complete my indoor trifecta at the Granite Ridge Conference indoor track meet.

The marquee athlete at the meet was Foley senior Charlie Lawrence, the defending Class 1A state champion in the 3,200 meters. And what do you know … he has been hobbling around after a hip injury caused by slipping on ice. That’s somehow fitting during this spring of cold temperatures and frozen footing.

Thankfully, Charlie told me, his mishap took place in late February even before the start of team practices.

“I’ve been recovering from that, going to physical therapy four or five days a week,” said Lawrence, who won the 800 and 1,600 Thursday. “It got pretty bad at one point to where I couldn’t even run. … I’m not 100 percent now but I’m feeling good and I’ve been doing some decent workouts.”

The Becker fieldhouse has five lanes that circle the building and seven lanes on the main straightaway for sprints and hurdles. It was cramped Thursday, with shot putters throwing specialized indoor implements on one end, pole vaulters and high jumpers on the other end and long and triple jumpers dashing alongside a wall and leaping into a sand landing area in a cramped corner. Anybody wanting to throw a discus was on their own to step outside and try to find a dry landing zone.

One lap of the track equals 200 meters, so the track is half the size of an outside track. The 1,600, therefore, was eight laps instead of the usual four. Teams camped out in the nearby gymnastics room. Little Falls won the boys team title and Zimmerman was the girls’ champion.

The meet came during the annual convention of Minnesota's athletic directors in St. Cloud. On Wednesday, the Granite Ridge ADs met to discuss the scheduling issues that this spring presents.

‘It’s been kind of frustrating,” said Foley AD Michael Johnson. “We’re trying to come up with alternative schedules and work together. It’s a struggle but you work hard and try to come up with a plan and do what’s best for the kids. That’s all you can do.”

Johnson has been the Foley athletic director for four years and until this year the Falcons have played every baseball and softball game on their schedules.

“We got really spoiled. Last year we were lucky,” he said. “This is my first experience where we probably will lose some non-conference softball and baseball games and doing a lot more doubleheaders than we probably want to.”

The Falcons also have a fieldhouse for teams to use as practice sites. That’s a good thing because so far the only Foley athletes who have been outside are the distance runners on the track teams.

The situation is similar at Mora, where the distance specialists have been outdoors while everyone else is in the gym.

"Since day one I’ve told the distance kids we were going outside regardless of the weather,” said Chris Goebel, who coaches the Mora distance runners. “They know that and they’re prepared for that. Our sprinters, on the other hand, they have to spend a lot of time in our gym.

“We looked yesterday; half of our track is cleared off and the other half still had snow on it. The track is going to be cleared off long before jumpers can do anything, that’s for sure.”

Warmer weather will arrive eventually – knock on wood – but spring sports in 2013 will surely be remembered for a late start, a compacted season and lots of challenges.

“I went to the Twins game Monday with my kids,” Johnson said, “and it was hard driving back from the cities, where there is no snow, and heading north where we have more and more snow. But we’re better off than a lot of places up north, so we’re lucky.”

--To see a photo gallery from the track meet, go the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS

*Schools/teams John has visited: 566
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,966
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
The Price Of A Late Spring: Softball Under An Inflatable Roof 4/3/2013
When the softball teams from Tartan and Mahtomedi faced off Wednesday, everything was business as usual … but not exactly.

For one thing the game was played indoors, under the inflated roof of a sports dome at the West St. Paul Regional Athletics Center. That meant no dirt, only artificial turf; which meant no cleats, only tennis shoes. Batted balls were likely to carom off the ceiling or scoot underneath plastic fencing that marked the outfield limits.

“The ball takes a completely different bounce on turf than it does in the dirt or on a gym floor,” said Mahtomedi coach Angela Vedders. “The girls have to read it completely differently. There are no cleats, so leading off and getting out of the box is much harder. The fences are off. It’s just very different. On Monday we slid past the bag a few times because they’re used to sliding and stopping in the dirt.”

This is the apparent new normal, at least in this year of a spring that is reluctant to make an appearance. As I wrote this week about baseball being played inside the Metrodome, softball is in the same boat, often a boat that is docked inside any warm and dry place to play. Teams are working out in gyms and sports domes that are scattered around the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota, and frustration with the weather is becoming as big a part of the game as balls and strikes.

“This is my fifth year (as Tartan’s coach) and this is the worst,” said Brian Larson. “Last year was the best and this year is the worst. We’re going to try to get through it.”

The teams from Tartan and Mahtomedi had already played one game inside the West St. Paul dome, so Wednesday’s setting was almost routine. Portable netting was set up behind home plate, the Tartan Titans bench was inside a batting cage, and fans watched from along the walls of the dome or stood beyond the outfield fence. There was no scoreboard, and the Tartan boys lacrosse team practiced on the opposite end of the dome while the softball game was played.

“You have to adjust to that ceiling,” Larson said, looking up. “The ball probably hit the ceiling 10 times in the last game and it did have an affect on one play. Foul balls are affected more; the umpires have to call whether it’s foul or fair coming up. If it hits the ceiling fair, you’ve got to play it.”

In the first inning Wednesday, a line drive bounced into right-center field and rolled under the fence. Two outfielders threw their arms into the air, signaling the ball was out of play and it was called a ground-rule double.

“Not being able to be outside we are not able to have a real game-like situation until we get to the dome,” Vedders said. “So our first real live game situation happens in the dome while we’re playing. Gyms aren’t made to be softball fields, so it gets really challenging when you’re trying to build a program and have girls adjust to positions they have never played before. It’s hard to play left, right or center when you don’t have a left, right or center indoors.

“We’ve thought about shoveling off the fields to try and get out there. But I’m glad we can get games in so we’re not backlogged.”

Tartan has an outdoor game scheduled Friday at Spring Lake Park, but on Wednesday Larson was not optimistic that it will be played there.

“I haven’t talked to them but I don’t think their field’s going to be ready,” he said. “Next week looks like it’s going to be dead, too.”

The same prognosis was found at Tartan and almost every other school in the area.

“Our AD talked to me today about being indoors next week for sure and possibly the following week because the frost needs to be out,” Vedders said. “Otherwise we wreck the fields.”

--To see a photo gallery from the game between Tartan and Mahtomedi, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS

*Schools/teams John has visited: 558
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,826
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
As We Await Spring, Indoor Baseball Is The Only Option4/2/2013
Kolten Barker, a senior pitcher and shortstop on the Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial baseball team, could have been speaking for every baseball player – as well as every spring-sport athlete – in Minnesota when he made this statement Tuesday: “I think a bunch of guys are really disappointed.”

He was talking about the miserable weather that has harassed, delayed and played havoc with spring sports. The baseball teams from Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial and Maple River enjoyed a respite Tuesday afternoon by playing their season opener inside the vast expanse of the Metrodome. The game was scheduled by the coaches months and months ago, which turned out to be a pretty smart move.

“(LCWM coach) John Madsen and I have been around for quite a while,” said Maple River coach Randy Olson. “Last year we were saying, ‘We always get that first game delayed so why don’t we just play it up here?’ ”

The fee to use the Metrodome is $500 per hour, which includes use of the scoreboards and public-address system. But there is no shortage of teams on the high school and college levels from Minnesota and other states who have reserved time at the indoor ballpark.

Tuesday’s schedule began at 6 a.m. with a college doubleheader between St. Cloud State and Minnesota Crookston, followed by the Maple River-LCWM game, Henry Sibley vs. St. Paul Highland Park at 4 p.m., a game between Wisconsin high schools Menomonie and New Richmond at 7 p.m., and finally a 10 p.m. game between Maple Grove and Watertown-Mayer.

Baseball teams in the upper Midwest have few other options. There are a handful of outdoor fields that have artificial turf, but this spring’s bone-chilling temperatures make that a less-than-enticing proposition.

Minnetonka High School baseball coach Paul Twenge, whose school has an artificial turf diamond, said, “I’ve been here for seven years and we’ve only had this happen one other time, and that year it was snow. This year it’s the cold.”

Twenge receives several phone calls and emails a day from high school and college teams that would like to use the Skippers’ field. “You totally understand what they’re going through,” he said.

Here’s some even worse news: If spring weather in 2014 and 2015 are similar to 2013, there will be no indoor places to play baseball. The Metrodome will be demolished after the Vikings finish the 2013 season, with a new stadium next door to the dome not opening until 2016.

Temperatures are predicted to warm up in the days ahead, which would provide much-needed relief for all the baseball, softball, track, lacrosse, tennis athletes and golfers who have been patiently practicing indoors.

The Maple River and Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial baseball teams – both schools are southwest of Mankato -- have been working out inside their gyms, on tennis courts and anywhere else they can find some dry ground.

“It’s been tough.” said Maple River senior shortstop Michael Lewis. “(Monday) was actually the first day we got out on the field. It was still pretty squishy and we were basically playing at about 70 percent. It’s just been tough. You can only take so many cuts off a tee; we need to get out and play.”

Maple River senior third baseman and pitcher Jeremiah Ennen said he was “very excited, very grateful to have this opportunity” to play in the Metrodome. “It’s pretty spectacular.

“It was kind of discouraging to just keep going in the gym and going in the gym,” he said. “To be in here, it just looks huge. We haven’t really been able to get a feel for the outside, the weather, the space. Having a nice environment to play in, where it’s not blowing and cold with snow blowing around, is pretty nice.”

Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial has enough gym space to work on infield drills, hit in a batting cage and use live pitching. Madsen said he checked on the Knights’ field Monday evening, trying to gauge how long it might be before the team can practice and play outdoors.

“Everything was pretty firm,” the coach said. “We have a little bit of snow on the warning track in left field and I don’t know how much frost has come out of the ground. We haven’t had any snow for about a week.”

After Tuesday’s game at the Metrodome, all baseball eyes in Maple River and Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial were looking to Thursday’s weather. That’s when the two teams are scheduled to play again … on the Knights’ field.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Madsen said.

--To see a photo gallery from the game between Maple River and Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.

BY THE NUMBERS

*Schools/teams John has visited: 556
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 7,789
(*During the 2012-13 school year)