This Is Spring? Weather Forces High School Teams to Improvise
Rivendell Academy senior Josh Marshall hits a handful of golf balls from a small mat of artificial grass in the snow at his home in Orford, N.H., on March 26, 2014. "I guess I'm getting pretty anxious," said Marshall, who bought the mat in December and has used it 10-15 times this winter. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
A worker clears snow from Hartford High School's baseball diamond at Neal Park in White River Junction, Vt., on March 25, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
From left, seniors Scott Calhoun, Luke Bell, and Nate Eastman run laps around the gym to warm up during the boys varsity baseball practice at Rivendell Academy in Orford, N.H., on March 24, 2014.
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Ethan Jayne, a senior, reaches down to catch a ball while practicing running catches during the boys varsity baseball practice at Rivendell Academy in Orford, N.H., on March 24, 2014.
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Hartford High School freshman Summer Parkhurst, right, 14, and senior Mariah Palmer, 17, drill with the tennis team inside the gymnasium at Hartford Middle School in White River Junction, Vt., on March 25, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
The calendar says spring; the schedule says play ball. Mother Nature says fat chance.
Welcome to the spring sports season in the Upper Valley — if you can call it that.
Area teams on both sides of the Connecticut River opened spring practice this week. But instead of green diamonds, manicured greens, prepared pitches and sun-drenched tracks and tennis courts, teams are confronted with high snowbanks and deep snowpack covering their respective fields, to say nothing of the deep frost holding hard in the ground below the snows.
And we haven’t even started with mud season yet.
Whether your school offers as many as eight sports this spring or as few as three, whether you play on natural grass or on artificial turf, everyone is in the same position. They’re playing inside in the gymnasium, waiting for warmer weather to come to the rescue.
Look at Hanover High. Even having a lighted turf field hasn’t helped athletic director Mike Jackson. There remain at least 16 inches of snow on his field and track right now.
“We tried to plow (the turf field) some years ago, but that doesn’t work because you can’t guarantee you won’t cut (the turf) up,” Jackson said.
In the past, Hanover has used a snowblower to clear the field, but there is so much snow this year, there’s no place to send it.
Jackson’s tennis teams can’t get to their Storrs Pond courts because the road to the recreation area isn’t plowed yet — as if the Marauders could play on the courts anyway. And Hanover’s crew teams can’t get on the Connecticut River because it’s still clogged with ice.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this bad,” noted Jackson, who hopes to rent a larger snowblower to clear his turf field. “My hope is to get on the field by the end of the week.
“Right now, because we have so many teams, we have two teams practicing before school. We’re no different than anybody else. It’s just been that kind of a crazy year.”
Necessity is the mother of a golfer’s invention, and the proof is sitting in Josh Marshall’s yard.
The Rivendell Academy senior and his Raptor teammates won’t be getting on a golf course any time soon to begin the defense of last year’s Vermont Division III state championship, the school’s first in any sport. Rivendell coach Justin Bonnett, an assistant golf professional at Lake Morey Country Club, admitted the team’s home course still has 1½ to 2 feet of snow on it. Bonnett uses April 1 as a guide to start team practices, since scheduled matches don’t arrive until the end of the month, so work has yet to start.
“I’ve never really had to worry about that before, until this year,” Bonnett confessed.
Marshall has gone creative to get in a little work. He saw a mat suitable for hitting balls at an area store back in December, bought it, cleared a space for it at his Orford home and has occasionally slapped a few shots into his family’s field to maintain muscle memory ever since.
“We have a very open field that I can hit into,” said Marshall, who also practices his putting in the house. “I hit from an icy patch, so there’s not a lot of snow on it. It’s pretty flat and a pretty hard surface to stand on. … Over the years, I’ve accumulated a lot of ratty golf balls (and) I’m not going to be too disappointed if I don’t find them in the spring.”
Bonnett said players have been posting photographs of their Christmas golf gifts online all winter, so he knows they’re ready to start. But it won’t be happening outdoors in Fairlee; instead, the Raptors are more likely to visit an indoor facility or make use of a hitting net that Bonnett can construct in the clubhouse’s pro shop.
“It got turned into a skate shack this year,” Bonnett said of the shop. “I have to wait until they get that stuff out.”
With no track facility on campus, South Royalton School coach Rose Dedam is always having to put together creative workouts.
That becomes even more challenging when winter conditions linger and the Royals are confined to the indoors. But Dedam had an idea as preseason training began this week.
“All of our equipment is in a shed with about 2-3 feet of snow piled in front of it,” said Dedam, whose boys team is the reigning Vermont Division IV state champion. “Clearing that out is going to be a workout for someone.”
Like most spring sports teams in the area, South Royalton’s athletes will be confined mainly to strength training inside the gymnasium. Since it will likely be several weeks before the Royals are even sniffing at outdoor training, Dedam can only hope to keep them focused.
“It’s easy the first week, when everyone comes in and they’re enthusiastic about getting started … about the season,” she said. “By the third week, when you’re stuck in the gym doing the same old stuff, it gets a little harder to keep that enthusiasm going.”
Once the snow melts, South Royalton will use the soccer fields behind the school to mark out a track with cones and begin more extensive running workouts. Dedam doesn’t expect to be able to do that anytime in the near future.
“It’s going to be awhile, unfortunately,” she said.
At Woodstock Union High, a wide range of athletic and extracurricular programs makes it difficult to find space for everyone. The baseball and softball teams typically share the high school gym and the lacrosse teams normally share Union Arena. The Wasps track and field teams typically split time between a crammed cafeteria and the Woodstock Middle School gym.
Like everyone else, first-year Woodstock track and field coach Mike Jabour is adjusting to the shuffle and the limited space.
“It’s a challenge sometimes just to do workouts,” said Jabour, an assistant to Woodstock athletic director Jeff Thomas. “We have 60 kids, which can be difficult to fit into a cafeteria. So simple things like stretching can be an issue.”
On a recent day, the Wasps’ track team, the girls lacrosse team, an AAU basketball outfit, a self-defense class and an additional fitness class all shared the middle school gym, one after the other, Jabour noted.
“Everyone is just kind of in and out, doing what we can,” the coach said. “Once the snow melts, we’ll have much better opportunities to do sprinting and hill workouts, much more solid workouts.”
For now, Woodstock has been working primarily on core strength development.
“By the time we get outside, we’ll be strong enough to compete at a high level,” said Jabour, a South Burlington, Vt., native who holds the South Burlington High 100-meter dash record. “Physically, we’re going to be prepared. Mentally, we’re probably going to have to get the first couple meets under our belts for that.”
Mike Heffernan, the Kearsarge boys lacrosse coach, usually schedules an opponent for a scrimmage at the end of the first week of practice. Not this year.
“I don’t care how hardy the kids are, I’m not going to bring them outside so they can break their sticks in 20-degree weather,” Heffernan said. “I don’t see us getting on our practice field for two or three weeks.”
The good news is that the Cougars’ boys and girls lacrosse teams are slated to practice with and play against Somers (Conn.) High School early next month in the Nutmeg State. Otherwise, it’s indoor practices unless Kearsarge athletic director Scott Fitzgerald can book his teams onto artificial turf surfaces at Colby-Sawyer College, Proctor Academy or New England College.
Heffernan’s team is scheduled to open its season against Stevens on April 14.
For the first time in at least 20 years, the Lebanon High girls lacrosse team isn’t likely to host its home opener as scheduled. Sara Ecker has been the team’s coach during that stretch, and she can’t recall it ever happening. But she also doesn’t see her team’s field being ready for play in less than three weeks.
“It’s covered in a foot and a half of snow and even after that melts, you have to get the frost layer to thaw,” she said. “Right now, when it’s cold, nobody cares about not being outside. But when it becomes 55 degrees and beautiful outside, (players) get a little stir-crazy.”
The restricted space plays havoc with teaching tactics, passing rhythm and positioning, especially in the quick transitions from offense to defense and vice versa that make lacrosse so challenging.
“A few years ago, we had a snow issue and we played Hanover on our first day outside, and they killed us through the midfield,” Ecker said. “We hadn’t been able to work on that part of the game.”
The Raiders dropped down to NHIAA Division III last year, a move that’s paying off unexpectedly this spring.
“I don’t believe anyone on our schedule has (artificial) turf,” Ecker said. “Some do in Division I and Division II, and if we were there, we’d be in real trouble.”
Woodstock High has one of the most beautiful settings for a softball field in all of Vermont. The diamond is nestled up against wooded areas that shade the first- and third-base lines, while the Ottauquechee River gurgles slowly past the trees beyond right field.
“It’s a beautiful field in May,” said Dave Miles, who served as the Wasps’ coach last spring before giving way to Jane Hoisington this spring.
The problem for Woodstock’s diamond is not only that it’s currently under several feet of snow, but that it lies at the bottom of a sloping series of athletic fields, making for a soggy situation. The same greenery that provides soothing shade in late spring means snow doesn’t melt very rapidly early in the season.
Last year, Woodstock’s first home games were scheduled for April 8 and 11, “and we weren’t even close to being able to play at home at that point,” said Miles, whose team instead played those contests on the road.
“All along the first-base line and the edge of the outfield was still under snow at that point. And we’ve had a lot more snow this year.”
Over in Hanover, to Mike Landau’s thinking, his team has it luckier than most around these parts. No, his Hanover softball team isn’t likely to get on its game field for at least three weeks, maybe more. And no, the artificial turf field at the school isn’t yet available for practices.
But softball doesn’t require the movement and timing of lacrosse nor as much wide-open space as track.
“At least in our sport, you can isolate certain skills and practice them in the gym,” Landau said. “Twenty-five girls hitting off one pitching machine and fielding grounders that all bounce true inside isn’t great, but our motto is that we’re happy-go-lucky and we’re not going to complain about it.”
Hanover plays home games on a recreational field in the middle of Norwich’s Huntley Meadows. It’s a far cry from the newer field the baseball team gets to use a few miles down the road, but the softball diamond is exposed to the sun and drains well. The Marauders’ first game isn’t scheduled until April 23, a concession to the school’s spring break earlier in the month. That means few contests should be lost because of the long winter, but also condenses the regular-season schedule into little more than a month.
“It’s going to be a blitz from the start to the end of the season,” Landau said.
Winter still has its grip on the teams from the southern part of the Upper Valley.
In Newport, Bates Memorial Field, surrounded on three sides by the Sugar River, has always been one of the last facilities in the area to dry out and be ready for play. This year is no different. But along with the snow cover, athletic director Doug Beaupre believes there could be as much as five feet of frost still to come out of the ground.
In recent years, when the snow eventually melted, the river would flood from left field down through the infield and raise havoc with the ground surface. Several years ago, a berm was built in left field, which diverted the flow of the water away from the infield.
“We used to have to rebuild the mound every year, “ Beaupre said. “When the field eventually dried, I used to have to go down there and remove all the dead fish that didn’t make it back to the Sugar River.”
While the team — under new coach Tim Spanos — waits for Bates Field to clear, the team has been practicing in Wheeler Gym. Tryouts were held Monday and Tuesday.
In Claremont, Stevens High student-athletes are planning on shoveling off the tennis court on Friday in anticipation of improving weather.
“We will still have to get the nets up and make some repairs to the surface,” Stevens athletic director Aaron House said.
Fortunately for the Stevens girls tennis team — there is no boys team — its first match is April 7 on the road at Littleton. The first home competition is April 16 with Monadnock.
This spring has presented a logistical nightmare to House as he tries to get spring practices in for all the teams. The softball and baseball teams have been working out at Grantham Indoor, while the track team has been getting its workouts in at the community center. Lacrosse and tennis have been using Carr Gym.
“We’re fortunate that we can us the Grantham and Center,” said House. “It opens up the gym for other sports.
In Woodsville, it’s business as usual for the baseball and softball teams, as the teams in the north country are veterans in dealing with lingering winter issues for their spring sports teams. The baseball team is practicing at the high school and the softball team at the elementary school.
“It works pretty well, as both facilities are equipped with batting cages,” athletic director Mike Ackerman said. “Up here we usually have to practice a couple of weeks inside.”
Since the baseball diamond is located near the Connecticut River, Ackerman says they always have a frost down there.
“I’ve been looking at the 10-day forecast, and it looks like a lot of rain,” he said. “Let’s hope it’s a warm rain.”
And even when the field is cleared — as in the case with the Dartmouth College softball team — it hasn’t been enough. Tuesday’s game with UMass-Lowell was called off because of what the school termed “wintry conditions.”
The baseball team is scheduled to open its home season on April 2. On Tuesday, plows and snow blowers took to Red Rolfe Field to start clearing the turf field from its winter cover.
Things have also been difficult for the college’s heavyweight crew team. Coming home from a 1,000-mile trip to Oak Ridge, Tenn., to work on a 2,000-meter flat course, the team found the Connecticut River still frozen over. According to a story in The D artmouth, the team considered training on the Charles River in Boston, but after learning that the river is already filled with teams practicing, the Big Green rowers altered their plans and will travel to Hartford, Conn., this weekend.
Staff writers Tris Wykes, Jared Pendak and Greg Fennell and correspondent Poody Walsh also contributed to this report.
Don Mahler can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3226.