How to play spring sports without spring

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Lake Region Union High School boys baseball coach Eric Degre steps outside to survey the baseball field Friday.  “There's two feet of snow on the ground now,” he said.  “And we're expecting more over the weekend.”  Though Mr. Degre has reason to feel blue — the pitcher's mound can be seen just above center frame — he intends to take his team to Florida for spring break.   Photos by David Dudley
Lake Region Union High School boys baseball coach Eric Degre steps outside to survey the baseball field Friday. “There’s two feet of snow on the ground now,” he said. “And we’re expecting more over the weekend.” Though Mr. Degre has reason to feel blue — the pitcher’s mound can be seen just above center frame — he intends to take his team to Florida for spring break. Photos by David Dudley

copyright the Chronicle April 8, 2015 

by David Dudley

Each year around April 1, the weather plays its own April Fool’s prank on the Northeast Kingdom. For young athletes in the area, the first day that the temperature rises above 30 degrees engenders an irrepressible need to get outside and play.

That need is only magnified for high school athletes. The delays caused by weather such as this year’s, where winter shows every sign of hanging on, can mean less time for practice, and could give opponents in a less snowy clime a competitive edge.

Spring sports coaches have to be on top of their game to face this challenge. They have to figure out resourceful ways to practice outdoor sports while indoors.

Eric Degre, boys baseball coach at Lake Region Union High School (LRUHS), Derek Cipriano, track and field coach at Craftsbury Academy, and Brian Hampton, who coaches girls golf at North Country Union High School (NCUHS) all have their own approaches to the problem.

“There’s more snow on the field this year than there was last,” Mr. Cipriano said. “Traditionally, we don’t get outside until after the April break.”

Mr. Cipriano said that the frost runs deep this year, and they’ll have to wait until the ground is dry before they can get the tiller out there. Still, he’s managed to get his track and field team outside to practice on the common to do interval training.

Mr. Hampton laughed when asked when his girls will first set foot on a golf course.

“We’ll be lucky to get out to the driving range the last week of April,” he said. “But this isn’t new in Vermont.”

He said that many states have their high school golf season in the fall.

“We’ve tried to convince the local courses to help us with this, but they’re reluctant,” Mr. Hampton said.   “That’s prime time for them, so it’s understandable.”

Instead, Mr. Hampton takes his team to an indoor space where they’ve set up four tee stations. They’ve hung nets across the width of the room, creating a makeshift driving range.

“We’ve been doing this for years,” Mr. Hampton said. “It works just fine. All we need is one week of good weather, and we can be up to speed.”

Mr. Degre said that his team spends much of April practicing in the gym, where the dimensions are fairly similar to an infield. He also said that the players have a collapsible batter’s cage so batters can get their swings in, and a portable pitcher’s mound so his hurlers can get their throws in.

“I try to be as creative as possible,” Mr. Degre said. “We can practice hitting, pitching, and infield stuff in the gym. Still, it’s not the same as being on the field. I wish we could get out sooner, sure, but you can’t control the weather.”

Mr. Degre said that, in a typical year, the team doesn’t get to play on the field until they play their first game, around April 14.

That’s not far off, and there’s still lots of snow out there.

Last year Lake Region Principal Andre Messier took a snow blower to the field.

“Mr. Messier was out there Monday through Friday for four hours a day,” Mr. Degre said. “And then he put in two ten-hour days on Saturday and Sunday to clear the field.”

“We couldn’t do it this year,” Mr. Messier said. “The conditions wouldn’t permit it. Last year, there was ice beneath the snow, so we could strip it away without damaging the field. This year, there’s no ice under the snow. Our field specialist advised us not to.”

That creates a real problem, since there was still two feet of snow on the ground as of Friday, with more to come.

Taylor LaBlanc (foreground) draws back her club at an indoor driving range Friday.  North Country Union High School girls golf Coach Brian Hampton said he has used this space for years to get his practices in during the unpredictable month of April.  From right to left, and in descending order, are: Lindsey Brownfield, Katie Goulet, and Carley Gerioux.  Mr. Hampton is at far left.
Taylor LaBlanc (foreground) draws back her club at an indoor driving range Friday. North Country Union High School girls golf Coach Brian Hampton said he has used this space for years to get his practices in during the unpredictable month of April. From right to left, and in descending order, are: Lindsey Brownfield, Katie Goulet, and Carley Gerioux. Mr. Hampton is at far left.

“We can’t control it, so we do the best we can,” Mr. Degre said.

But this year he was inspired to try something more radical.

“Last fall, I spoke to BFA Fairfax Coach Mike Brown,” Mr. Degre said. “We got to talking about sending our boys down to Florida in April. This way they can get some practice in, and a game or two.”

Since then, Mr. Degre and his team have been trying to raise funds to send the team to Dodgertown, in Vero Beach, South Florida, for spring break. Though each player has to raise $1,008 to participate, Mr. Degre feels the opportunity will be well worth it.

“It will give the team some much-needed time to practice in good weather,” he said. “And we’ll get to play against BFA Fairfax while we’re down there. When we come home, we’ll be ready to play. It’s the perfect way to start the season.”

contact David Dudley at [email protected]

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