By BOB ETTINGER
In the middle of February, pictures and videos of Major League Baseball’s players tossing a ball around signal the start of baseball season.
Around the same time, pictures of Northeast Ohio’s athletes gearing up for the spring season begin popping up, as well, but with a major difference.
The photos of the professionals are set against the lush green grasses of diamonds in Arizona and Florida. The backdrops in the pics of the local competitors is always a gymnasium wall.
For five weeks — longer if Mother Nature chooses not to cooperate — winter weather keeps the baseball, softball and tennis players of Ashatbula and Lake counties cooped up inside, presenting a number of problems as those athletes prepare for the whirlwind spring season. Track and field athletes are conditioned to getting their work in outside, despite the elements. Not having to deal with having a ball involved in their sport makes things a bit easier.
One issue facing the coaches of those teams is trying to figure out how to divide gym time among three varsity and three junior-varsity teams. That doesn’t even include the added problem of a winter team advancing late into the postseason.
“That happens a lot at the end of basketball,” Lakeside baseball coach Andy Kiphart said. “If they win, we practice at one time and if they lose, we practice at another. That’s always difficult. Wrestling, too, can be an obstacle. The wrestling room is the mezzanine.”
Communication is often key in that regard.
“(Baseball coach Nathan Smith and I) have a really good working relationship,” Pymatuning Valley softball coach Andy Gray said. “We switch back and forth, with one team going from 2:30 to 4:30 and the other going from 4:30 to 6:30 and vice versa every other day. It really isn’t a problem.
“It’s never been a problem. (Former baseball coach Steve) Urchek was good with it, too.”
Planning helps in that regard, too.
“We actually share the gym with baseball and tennis,” Edgewood softball coach Steve Cunha said. “We have a schedule, but it works out because (baseball coach) Bill (Lipps) likes the 7-9 slot. The other two teams usually go from 3-5 and 5-7.
“If the weather is better outside, everybody practices right after school.”
“That part’s not real difficult,” Lipps said. “One team goes from 3 to 5, one goes from 5 to 7 and the last one goes from 7 to 9. We all get two hours of practice in.”
In sharing the facilities, there are advantages to practicing in the later time slots as opposed to right after school.
“I like to take the 7 to 9 slot,” Lipps said. “That way, my baseball players can get some lifting for football in after school. We can also extend the cage time five or 10 minutes if we need to. We are out in the cafeteria stretching at 6:45 so we get a full two hours of gym time.”
“If you get the gym second, you can practice a little longer,” Gray said. “If you have the first time slot, you can only practice two hours. With the second one, you can go as long as you want. A lot of times, I don’t mind going in that second shift.”
Some teams are afforded the luxury of having two gyms, making the schedule almost unnecessary.
“We don’t have an issue with the baseball team because we have two gyms,” Riverside softball coach Bill Ross said. “We have one gym strictly for softball and one for baseball. Our biggest issue is dividing the time among the three softball teams.
“The tennis team doesn’t use the gym. Believe it or not, they use the hallways. They set up a table sideways and volley across the table. They find a way.”
Maybe more difficult than finding time in the gym is figuring out how to best use the limited time and space with upwards of 25 kids trying to run, hit and throw.
“Our numbers are down, so hitting is easier,” Gray said. “We can get more hitting in. They get more reps with us having smaller numbers.”
“The schedule gets made out and we all abide by it,” Cunha said. “It is what it is. It’s hard having just the two hours.
“What we do is split into two groups. The first group comes in from 4:45 to 6 and the other group comes in from 5:45 to 7. That way, we have only 11 or 12 at a time. We can get more done even though it’s less time.”
Some schools have a bit more space to utilize than others. Jefferson and Lakeside, for instance, make use of two gymnasiums and a balcony allowing those coaches to divide their teams into groups with one group working on defense, another on offense with the pitchers and catchers breaking off to get some work in, as well.
“We’re fortunate,” Kiphart said. “We have the main gym, the mezzanine and the and the small gym. We use all three at once.”
“We get the auxiliary gym,” Geneva tennis coach Phil Dubsky said. “We have it every day from 2:30 to 4:30. Also, we rent an indoor court at times on the weekends. It helps to have Pine Lakes in Mentor.”
All that, and the tennis teams at those schools make use of a fourth option. They head over to their respective middle school’s gyms.
“I choose to go over there,” Jefferson tennis coach Lou Murphy said. “We have to wait until 3:30 to do it, but it’s worth it because we’re by ourselves.
“It makes it more consistent for the kids and their parents to know practice is at the same time every day after school. It’s good for me, too, because I can schedule things. If we had to switch every week, we’d start getting into a whole other world trying to fit things in.”
“We’re fortunate enough to have access to the junior high gym,” Lakeside tennis coach Bob Walters said. “We have the volleyball standards that we can set up as tennis nets and we use multi-colored, low-compression balls. They can see the spin and it gives them the real feeling of playing tennis. They can use a full swing and use the same velocity so it’s like really playing tennis.
“That’s worked out pretty well for us.”
Even if a coach figures out how to best use the space he’s afforded inside, there are still issues in trying to play an outdoor sport in a gymnasium.
“It’s crazy,” Lipps said. “I cannot imagine (Edgewood boys basketball coach John) Bowler trying to play basketball outside on a baseball field. The crazy part is we’re trying to play baseball inside on a basketball court. It gets old in there really quick. The state allows us to start practice on Feb. 25, here it is March 15 and, looking at the forecast, there’s no hope of getting outside for at least another six days.
“That’s more frustrating than trying to get gym time.”
“It’s difficult because there’s only so much you can do in the gym,” Cunha said. “We do a lot of teaching coverages and how we want them to move. We do take some infield, but the problem is it’s not like when we’re outside because you always get a true bounce.
“We can’t tie the infield and outfield together. We can’t put nine girls out there at the same time because the gym isn’t big enough for that.”
Again, some coaches have a luxury.
“The main gym is pretty big,” Kiphart said. “We can get close to a full infield.”
While preparing to play, spring athletes and coaches just have to make some concessions because they are stuck indoors.
“In our gym, we do have a regulation net we can set up and the lines for the boundaries are there,” Dubsky said. “The surface is really fast, so we spend more time on volleying and serving than we do on ground strokes.
“We can’t really simulate game situations. We can’t work on lobs or overheads because the batting cage is up there. That really hurts because in high tennis, especially in doubles, there are a lot of lobs. Since the surface is so fast, we don’t get realistic ground stroke situations.”
What it boils down to is the coaches of the spring sports pine for the rare occasions that the sun pokes through the clouds and the temperature tops out at a balmy 50 degrees.
“The more we can get outside, the better we are,” Cunha said. “Being from this part of the country, there’s nothing we can do. We either practice in the gym or not at all.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.