New Castle News

March 26, 2013

High School Sports: Teams set for 'spring' season, but weather won't cooperate

Andrew Petyak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Spring officially began six days ago.

But as snow continues to accumulate and cold temperatures remain the norm, it’s hard to believe the season truly has arrived.

As Lawrence County got clobbered again with snow late Sunday night, the weather has presented some tough challenges to the start of high school spring sports.

“That’s the topic of conversation all over western Pennsylvania right now,” Mohawk High athletic director Jared Stratton said. “Last year, we were blessed with fantastic weather. It’s just one of those things. We’re used to it. It’s a little bit worse this year.”

This year hasn’t been friendly to fans of sunshine. According to WTAE-TV chief meteorologist Mike Harvey, as of yesterday, the region has experienced just 10 days without either rain or snow in 84 days this calendar year.  

The usual snowfall in March is 6 1/2 inches. By Harvey’s account, this year’s mark is up to 12.4 inches. Combined with a mean drop in temperature of three degrees, seeing the practice field has been tough for many area teams.

“The overlying theme is frustration. We want the kids to play and get the games in,” Ellwood City Lincoln athletic director Tony Pietrcollo said. “Last year at this time was beautiful. You just have to be patient.”  

 With an early Easter coming this weekend, relief may be on the way. Since games usually are not played during the holiday, the adverse conditions won’t put a dent into a lot of schedules. However, practice times and nonsection games have been lost this week. Just yesterday, more than 10 sporting events, including track and field, tennis, softball and baseball games, were postponed to a later date.

  “It’s been two weeks into it, I know we were supposed to have a track scrimmage last week and it was too cold. We always draw that line at 34 degrees,” New Castle athletic director Sam Flora said. “In my 14 years as athletic director and 32 years total at the school, this is one of the worst starts I’ve ever seen.”

“We haven’t done anything,” Union athletic director Bob Natale added. “Our softball season opened (yesterday), and that game has been postponed. We have a game against South Side (tomorrow), and their athletic director called me saying it doesn’t look like we’re playing that.”

 What puts western Pennsylvania athletic directors further in a bind are the restrictions and guidelines of the WPIAL when it comes to its league games. With teams attempting to follow schedules after weather delays, problems compound when games need to be made up and schedules are already packed.

“The WPIAL strongly encourages you to play games in order. In the first available date you have, they want you to play your makeup games,” Natale said. “You may play four games in one week or so. They expect you to follow your schedule.”

Lack of practice time has put a damper on teams looking to get extra work in or gain experience from games. Many teams have yet to see the playing field this season. Laurel baseball coach Eric Verdi is entering his 14th year at the helm of the Spartans. Experience is on his side. Unfortunately for Verdi, he can’t say the same for his young team.

“Coming from a team I had last year, we’ve lost seven of nine starters. I have a lot of new players with no game experience,” he said. “ The danger for us is having a below .500 or losing record. We’re ready to go, we just need the experience of playing.”

Verdi and many other local coaches have had to switch practices to gyms, parking lots, indoor spaces or football fields. At Neshannock, the team has the luxury of an artificial surface installed a few seasons ago, but issues with the outfield have limited Lancers coach Mike Kirkwood in his practices as well.

“We got two scrimmages in. We’ve been on our field a lot more than anybody else. We’re lucky that way as well,” Kirkwood said. “In that aspect, I think it’s going to be helpful for us. We have a young team, so getting these kids some time and rhythm going hurts when it’s always getting broken up with the snow.”  

One of the greatest risks to an inconsistent baseball schedule is the impact it has on young pitching arms at smaller schools that don’t have the players to take innings from one another.  

“You don’t want your pitching to be backed up three or four games,” Kirkwood said. “You want to try to get your pitchers some work and not overuse them. You have to weigh the options of having them throw in the gym or not.”

Even after a snowfall has cleared, fields aren’t ready. Playing on a surface too early can be a very muddy and unpleasant experience.”

Flora agreed.

“(The snow) puts you a week behind on the fields,” he said. “I know Flaherty Field hasn’t been touched yet. It’s a short window to get everything in. When you go from 45 degrees during the day, then an 18- to 20-degree night, it might as well just be an all-night rain.”

Some schools have changed strategies with preparations for sports early in the spring season. The New Castle softball team is taking a different route, playing games further south in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“Our girls are in Myrtle Beach and they have the best idea of everybody,” Flora said. “They have three games there and two other days to scrimmage. Their boosters pay for it all. They had fundraisers last year and fundraisers this year. They rented two passenger vans. It’s a good thing if you’re going down there to play.”

Shenango joined New Castle’s thought process, making a trip to Orlando, Fla., to participate in the KSA Tournament. It is the third visit for the school to the tournament in nine years.  

“It’s sunny and 70 degrees,” Shenango athletic director Jan Budai said. “The field conditions are phenomenal. The advantage the people have in the south is unbelievable compared to what we have up north. We were able to get all the scrimmages and exhibitions in before the season.

“It’s a lot of work to raise the money to come down here to do this. We’ve brought kids down here over the years who have never experienced anything coming out of the state, staying overnight somewhere and being in this type of environment down here with athletes from all over the country.”

With the cost of trips and the amount of fundraising needed for them, the option to go south isn’t plausible for most teams. Until then, coaches and players will have to play the only game they can —the waiting game.

“This is contrary to what the groundhog predicted, but I’ve been told he’s only been right 39 percent of the time,” Wilmington athletic director Scott Brush said. “I think a lot of people, coaches and players are starting to get bored being inside. They’re like caged animals. It’s a little depressing. I think it’s more of an issue mentally than physically. A lot of people are looking outside and watching it snow and it’s already late March. I think for a lot of people panic sets in. Two weeks from now, it’ll be nothing more than a bad memory.”