You call this spring?
Looking out the window and seeing snow drifts up to your knees does not bring to mind ball games on emerald green diamonds, sunny laps around the track and 18-hole rounds on the golf course.
But no matter what it looks like outside, the spring season is upon us and many high school athletes are entering their fourth week contending with weather that feels like mid-winter.
"We've only been on the track once this season so far. We had to walk through ankle deep snow to get there," Osakis track and field coach Lee Van Nyhuis said. "If the roads are snow and ice-free we will run on them instead of the track."
The athletes' and coaches' attitudes toward the weather can be summed up in two words: patience and creativity. Coaches have to find ways to work as many skills as possible inside, keep their athletes engaged and prepare for what a late spring does to their overall season schedule.
The track and field team went sledding as an alternative workout in an attempt to get the kids outside and keep the sport fun. Shelly Engfer-Triebenbach, the boys and girls golf coach, is surprising her team with a swath of fake green grass she bought at Menards.
"We're going to chip off of that," Engfer-Triebenbach said. "Just little things like that that we try to do to hold their interest. I worry about holding the interest of especially the younger kids. No one really wants to be indoors playing golf. The sport was meant to be played outside."
The golf team has been practicing for weeks in what they lovingly refer to as 'the dungeon.' They have three hitting areas, three chipping areas and a mock putting area set up in a portion of the wrestling rooms on the lower level of the Osakis High School. They have also been able to rent space at the Scott Dirck Golf Academy in Alexandria a couple of times.
The varsity golf team invited the junior high golf team to practice with them last week. It's a good experience for the younger players to get advice from older players and it gives the older athletes a chance to mentor. Plus, it provides another welcome distraction for all the players.
"We were really spoiled last year. We were golfing on the second day of practice," Engfer-Triebenbach said. "I had high hopes for the end of April but we need to have some warmer days."
All the athletic programs are spending a good amount of time in the weight room, working on stretches and running circuits. But at some point, they have to get outside to practice the full range of skills needed for an outdoor sport.
"(The weather) probably hurts the field events the most," Van Nyhuis said. "You can only do so many drills. At some point you have to do the event to get better at it."
Keeping focused, healthy
The Osakis baseball team has been splitting its time between the Rock Maple cages in Alexandria for batting practice and the OHS gym where players work on pitching and defense.
"It's hard to remain focused because it's the last two months of school, seniors are almost done forever, then add the weather aspect," baseball coach Shad Schmidt said. "These kids sure go through the ringer mentally."
The baseball and softball teams are looking at an increased number of doubleheaders late in the season. Those long days can be tough on athletes, especially on pitchers and catchers.
"My concern is for our overall health, especially given that the weather we will be playing in will be cooler than it should be," Osakis softball coach John Stigman said. "We are lucky to have a couple pitchers on our staff. Can't imagine how hard this would be with only one pitcher."
The golf teams are anticipating extending all of their nine-hole conference meets to 18-hole and reshuffling meets around to hold two in one day.
"You can't really extend the season because of sections and state but you can pile a lot of golf into May," Engfer-Triebenbach said.
This isn't the first time a late, snowy spring has thrown a wrench in the spring athletic season. This is Minnesota, afterall. Many coaches remember the late snows of 2013.
"That year we traveled almost 200 miles south to get our first outdoor meet in on April 26," VanNyhuis said. "Hopefully, we won't have to do that this year."
Schmidt doesn't expect to be able to fit all 20 games into the schedule, but this isn't the first time the baseball season has been condensed down.
"We have good ball players and as long as we just stay healthy and stay positive we should still be one of the better teams in the conference," Schmidt said. "I am obviously disappointed in the weather, but I try not to let it bother me."
Later season an option?
But not all northern states are dealing with the snowy athletic season. The entire state of Iowa has a tradition of playing high school baseball and softball in the summer season. Games are usually held at nights so it won't interfere with potential summer jobs, more fans can attend and there's no temperamental spring weather to deal with.
"I think there needs to be conversations started about how the spring season is laid out," Stigman said. "We send athletes out in conditions that are not healthy for them, especially for their arms, which can be injured. Ideally, spring seasons would make more sense if they were pushed back to run in conjunction with summer."
But a summer season has issues of its own. Not everyone in Iowa loves the summer ball tradition. People say it interferes with family vacations and other summer activities.
"I know there is no desire to (move to summer) for many reasons, but the way we are doing it may not be the best way to do it," Stigman said. "I have real concerns about sending girls out to play ball games in 30 degree weather. By the time you get to decent weather, your season is over. And we live in central Minnesota. Imagine living in northern Minnesota."
Single-digit temperatures in April aren't fun for anyone, but spring sport coaches are particularly aware of how the weather affects their athletes, especially their seniors.
"I want them to have a full season, not a three-week season," Stigman said of his senior athletes. "But it's looking like that is going to happen to them. That makes me sad for them, having their last year compressed into a short schedule."