Watertown-Mayer teams hoping to roll winter away

Members of the Watertown-Mayer softball team roll giant snowballs off the field last week in an effort to reduce the amount of time before the remaining snow melts.
Members of the Watertown-Mayer softball team roll giant snowballs off the field last week in an effort to reduce the amount of time before the remaining snow melts.

According the schedule, the Watertown-Mayer baseball team should have been playing its sixth game of the season on Monday afternoon, a Minnesota River Conference game against rival Mayer Lutheran at Highland Park.

That schedule, however, was thrown out the window long ago. As a winter that refuses to end dragged on for at least another week, the baseball team was relegated to another day in the middle school gymnasium as snow continued to cover the team’s regular field, and temperatures did no better than flirt with 40 degrees.

For the Royals baseball squad, practice opened exactly one month ago, on March 18. Not only has the team not played any of its seven scheduled games — Tuesday’s game was postponed as well — it has only been able to practice outside three times, and even then, only in a severely restricted capacity.

“In terms of the nine years I’ve coached down here, nothing compares to this,” Watertown-Mayer coach Justin Stohs said.

Stohs’ baseball squad certainly isn’t alone in its early season frustrations. As of Tuesday’s press time, all 20 regularly scheduled varsity competitions in the five spring sports had been postponed or cancelled. With shaky weather forecasts for the remainder of the week putting weekend baseball and softball tournaments in jeopardy as well, the number of total postponements for Watertown-Mayer sports teams will be in danger of reaching 30, including 10 for the baseball team alone.

The growing list of postponements has created headaches when it comes to rescheduling games, a task that largely falls on Activities Director Mary Haugen and assistant Deb Neaton. As the number of open dates grows thinner and thinner, finding common open dates with opponents can be nearly impossible.

That’s why Haugen and other Minnesota River Conference Athletic Directors met Monday, when the conference decided to completely scrap its existing schedules for baseball and softball. Instead, the conference created brand new schedules which will include seven doubleheaders for each team in order to fulfill the full 14-game schedule. The new conference schedule starts April 25.

“Since nobody had played any games yet,” we decided to start fresh,” Haugen said. “I’ve been in this for over 30 years now, and I’ve never had to do this.”

Haugen said the Minnesota State High School league has received permission from the national federation to allow teams to play five-inning regulation games in order to squeeze in more doubleheaders, but the MRC will still attempt to play two regulation games in both baseball and softball, at least at the varsity level. Sub-varsity games will be switched to five-inning doubleheaders, Haugen said.

When it came to creating the new schedule, there certainly wasn’t a large window with which to work. In softball, for instance, the playoffs are slated to begin in less than a month, on May 17. The baseball playoffs are just a week later, on May 23. Without a single game in the books yet, teams will be squeezing a 14-game conference schedule into one month. Haugen said many non-conference games would be cancelled.

“Once the season starts, it will be a sprint to the finish,” Watertown-Mayer softball coach Scott Isakson said.

At this point, with a four-team home tournament set for Saturday, the Watertown-Mayer softball team is so desperate to finally get a game in that they spent their practice time on Friday rolling gigantic balls of snow off the field in an effort to reduce the amount of time it takes for the remaining snow to melt.

At least the Royals finally got a bit of a break on Tuesday, when they were able to play Mayer Lutheran in the Maple Grove Dome, which contains two full-sized softball fields. The baseball team also enjoyed an indoor scrimmage at the Metrodome earlier this spring, when the team had to get creative with a 10 p.m. start time against Maple Grove.

According to a recent story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, high school baseball games have been going on virtually around the clock at the Metrodome, with some teams playing games at times like 4 a.m. Stohs said that any opportunity to get out of the gym and into full-speed, game situations was much-needed for his team.

“Any time you have a chance to see your guys play in a real situation early is a big benefit to us,” he said. “We only had two hours, and it goes by quick. I would have like to have had a couple more hours, but it was great for our guys to get in there, be in the Dome, stretch their arms out, get live at bats and field some live balls off the bat.”

The five Watertown-Mayer spring sports — baseball, softball, track and field, boys’ golf and girls’ golf — have been fortunate to take advantage of ample gym space, often practicing on a rotating schedule to share time between the high school gym, the auxiliary gym and the middle school gym. The middle school gym even features two drop-down batting cages, and with a pair of rubber pitching mounds, the baseball team was able to take some live batting practice against its own pitchers earlier this week.

Still, while the team can work hard at nailing down its fundamentals, practicing a sport like baseball or softball in a gymnasium can only offer so much benefit.

“The hardest part is going to be getting adjusted to the actual outdoor dimensions,” said Stohs, whose team, when it finally plays a game, will likely do so with only three outdoor practices under its belt. “The hops off the ground, the true distance of a base, the sun in your eyes — all those little things you don’t get to work with indoors. … You can throw inside, but it doesn’t really simulate those true, outdoor game situations.”

The Watertown-Mayer boys and girls golf teams, which started practicing on March 11, have yet to practice outside once this year, even on the driving range.

“We’re just working on our fundamentals,” golf coach Tyler Finkelson said last week as the girls’ team practiced in the high school auxiliary gym. “Because we have this gym, we can actually see where the golf ball is going, but it’s never going to replicate what we can do outside. It’s getting a little frustrating to be in here.”

Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]