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Weather alert for spring sports teams

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Fox Park was supposed to host a softball scrimmage between Wildwood and Lower Cape May earlier this week. Instead, snow covered much of the field. So, you think you’ve had enough of all this late-winter cold and snow?

Ask coaches or players trying to get ready for a spring sports season how they feel.

The snowstorm that dumped as much as 10 ½ inches of snow in some parts of the county on Monday helped continue what has been a difficult preseason for high school spring sports teams attempting to get ready for their regular seasons, which for most sports is scheduled to begin Tuesday, April 1.

We all know March can be no picnic weather-wise, even in a good year. But quite a few spring sports teams have held as little as three or four outdoor practices since they were permitted to do so on March 7.

Two March snowstorms, especially the most recent one on Monday, and biting cold have led to limited outdoor work for many local teams.

“Maybe I’m forgetting a year, but I think this is the worst,” said Lauren Ruef, in her fourth season as Middle Township’s softball coach after four seasons coaching the same at Wildwood Catholic. “We’re looking at snow on the ground (Monday and Tuesday) and we were supposed to have scrimmages all week.”

Many other local teams were supposed to scrimmage Monday or Tuesday as well, but snow-covered fields wiped them all away. Wildwood was scheduled to host Lower Cape May in a softball scrimmage Tuesday. Instead, both teams held separate indoor practices while Wildwood’s home field, Fox Park, was unplayable. Most of the outfield was still covered with snow while the entire infield sat under about two inches of water caused by melting snow on Tuesday afternoon.

Holding occasional indoor workouts is common practice for spring sports teams. But they’re extremely eager to get outdoors and onto the grounds they’ll use for games on a more consistent basis.

“We’re definitely having to come up with new ideas for practice,” Lower Cape May golf coach Jeff Wunder said. “We’ve done a rules clinic with kids, and (Tuesday) we had a driving mat and a big net in the boys locker room at the gym at the high school and we were videotaping swings and hitting into the net. It’s some good stuff, but you want to be out there playing. It really puts a damper on what you’re doing.”

Lower’s golf team practices and plays home matches at Cape May National Golf Club, a course that, like many in South Jersey, has been unplayable for many days so far this month.

“We’ve been on the actual course maybe three or four days all year so far,” Wunder said. “Even once the snow at least goes away, the course is going to be soaking wet for a few days, too. Plus, Cape May National’s running a business there. They’re not going to open just so Lower Cape May can play. They’ll need to get their greens and everything else ready to go. We’re hoping we can maybe get out there by Friday.”

Wunder said last week’s wild temperature swings made for an interesting practice experience.

“I think it was one of the first times ever we felt like we got frostbite and sunburn in the same week,” he said with a laugh.

At Middle Township, minor renovations to the school’s home softball field at Boyd Street have added to the weather-related issues. A new dirt infield has been set, so the team has been cautious to practice on it while it’s damp.

“We haven’t been on our infield yet,” Ruef said. “We’ve been on our actual outfield only two days. … We’ve spent a lot of time in the high school gym and at the batting cages at (the) Goshen (Sports Complex). Getting the kids into positions has been extremely difficult. You have to make changes – we all do – replacing the previous starting players that graduated last year and it’s hard figuring out who’s playing where. It’s hard getting your pitchers to throw off a mound. It’s hard to get your catchers behind the plate and throwing to the bases. So it’s been interesting, to say the least.”

Inclement weather also puts a strain on facilities that simply can’t house all the teams that need places to hold indoor practices.

“Everyone’s vying for space in two gyms, so it’s tough here,” Wunder said of Lower Cape May.

At Wildwood, baseball coach Rich Hans, who also runs the Byrne Community Center that sits next to the Warriors’ home baseball field, has been holding some of his indoor practices at 9 p.m. at the rec center.

“It’s limited,” Hans said. “We can only get in the rec center for an hour. It kills you when you have a lot of kids. We have 25 kids in our program this year and it’s tough to coach 25 kids inside when the area you have is only the size of a basketball court.

“I think it’s good when you get a rain day every once in a while. You can go over your bunt coverages and first-and-third (situations) and baserunning and really talk to the kids about some things in more of a closed (environment). But you can only do that for so long. You need to get out on the field and do it.”

Lacrosse is the spring sport that is probably least affected by weather. Games can be played in almost all conditions, save for a soaking rain or, of course, on a snow-covered field. But this spring has been difficult for even those teams.

“It’s horrible,” said Middle boys lacrosse coach Tom Griffin. “We went out one cold day last week just because we felt like we had to. It was about 30 degrees out there and it was awful. We only lasted an hour and a half out there.”

Lower boys lacrosse coach Frank Zilinek expressed the same sentiment.

“We play through anything but this year’s been tough,” Zilinek said, “I tell the kids that I hate practicing indoors. But I bet we’ve already practiced inside the same amount of times we did for the entire season last year. I always say I’ll go outside in anything. But when it feels like it’s subzero some days and then you have snow on the ground a couple other days … The weather’s been horrendous.”

Lacrosse also faces an earlier start to its season, too. Middle is scheduled to play its first regular-season game next Wednesday against Southern Regional. Then on Saturday, March 29, Lower is slated to play its opener against Middle at home.

“I don’t know anyone in southern New Jersey that’s going to be really ready to play by next week,” Griffin said. “And then when you go inside, there’s no facility around here big enough for lacrosse. It’s hard enough for baseball and softball. But we have 38 kids. How do you practice inside a (basketball) gym with 38 kids? It gets tough.”

Some coaches said preventing injuries is a concern as well.

“One of the things I really worry about is keeping the kids healthy and safe,” Ruef said. “When you have all this cold weather, you worry about that, especially for the kids who don’t play year round.”

Assuming fields dry quickly once the snow melts away, local spring sports teams should be able to get in a few outdoor practices and maybe even a scrimmage or two toward the end of this week, with temperatures expected to reach into the low to mid 50s.

But the long-range forecast for early next week is calling for a return to winter-like conditions, with unseasonably cold temperatures in the mid 30s and – you guessed it – a chance for some snow showers on Tuesday.

“The one thing that keeps me going,” Middle’s Ruef said, “is that everyone’s dealing with the same thing.”

But that doesn’t mean we all have to like it.

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