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Coaches struggle to loosen winter's grip

04/01/2014, 1:30am EDT
By Mike Shute

A peek at how So. Jersey's spring teams have coped with weather challenges


A lacrosse goal stands unguarded on the artificial turf field on the campus of Bishop Eustace Prep in Pennsauken after last week's late winter snowfall.

Bishop Eustace baseball field

You can just make out the basepaths on the diamond at Bishop Eustace after last week's late winter snowfall.

The calendar may say April 1 and that we’re already nearly two weeks deep into the spring, but Old Man Winter sure has held on tight.

The frosty conditions and extensive amount of snow that’s hit the region this past winter has wreaked havoc with spring scholastic sports in South Jersey, causing everyone from the lacrosse and tennis teams to golf and track & field participants as well as course baseball and softball, to make preseason preparations indoors.

The only spring sport that has been entirely in its element is volleyball but surely their practices have even been interrupted and disrupted with so many other athletes trying to utilize, in some cases, limited indoor facilities.

Here’s a look at how four coaches have handled the weather and managed their teams while trying to have their charges ready for the start of the spring season.

BASEBALL: Rob Christ, Eastern

Even teams with artificial turf fields, such as Eastern High School’s baseball team, were not really able to capitalize on the advantages of the turf to get in quality prep time for the season, which is set to begin in earnest today.

“This year’s weather is the worst in all the years that I’ve been coaching as far as I can recall,” said Eastern baseball coach Rob Christ, who enters his 11th season guiding the Vikings and stands 11 wins away from 300 for his career. “And that’s even given the fact that we have great facilities here at Eastern.

“We’re fortunate,” Christ said, “because we do have a turf field so that’s allowed us probably greater accessibility than most however there’s been many a day where the snow has prohibited us from going outside or the cold weather has kept us in. Having coached for such a long period of time, it’s critical to have a practice plan in place that allows you to make the most of your indoor facilities.”

Christ says his team has utilized a pair of batting cages in the gym, worked out in the weight room and done a lot of running and conditioning indoors while also trying to get some infield work and situational practice with base running.

“The toughest thing to do indoors is anything related to the outfield,” Christ added. “We do have a drill series that we try to replicate some aspects of outfield play. Even the pitchers, it’s tough because even though they can throw indoors, it’s a whole different animal throwing on an actual mound and everything that’s associated with the outdoors.”

Eastern will get an opportunity to warm up, but they’ll have to do so by traveling to Florida. Christ’s Vikings, who were 29-4 in 2013 and won the first Group 4 state championship in school history, open the season today against Cherry Hill West in an Olympic Conference interdivision game, but Wednesday the team will hop a flight down to the Sunshine State for a few games before returning for an April 7 date at Washington Township.

The lack of on-the-field training has Christ a bit uneasy since he has only two returnees from last year’s state champion squad, although one is senior third baseman Tom Flacco, who was named the preseason “Mr. Baseball” for the state by MaxPreps.com back in January. Last season, Flacco hit .412 with five home runs, eight doubles and two triples, racking up 38 RBI and scored 38 runs to go along with 29 stolen bases, an on-base percentage of .516 and a slugging percentage of .676.

Flacco, younger brother of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, was also a Second Team All-State quarterback at Eastern this past fall after leading the Vikings to the South Jersey Group 4 final.

“We have a very young team,” Christ added, “with only two returning starters so  I have so many things, as a coach that I have to employ and introduce and teach and a lot of those things are far less effective if we’re not doing those outdoors. I feel like I’m always playing catch-up because there’s so many things that I would’ve liked to have accomplished by now but it’s become increasingly difficult because we don’t have the access to the field itself. Its going to be interesting to see and this may be the toughest year to have that happen b/c our team is so young.

GOLF: Shane Snyder, Washington Twp.

At Washington Township, golf coach Shane Snyder has reason to be optimistic with one of the area’s top returnees in senior Joe Russo and a team that has won four straight Gloucester County championships, but like everyone else, weather has hampered the efforts to get ready for the season.

“The weather obviously has limited what we can do,” Snyder said last Wednesday.  “We have been able to get to the course only about seven or eight times. On the days we do not get to the course we meet with the kids and do different things. We had them take a quiz on some of the rules of golf.  Then the next time we went over the answers and showed a YouTube clip of different rules infractions and penalties. (Another) day after school we were going to go over pace of play and etiquette.”

Golf is not a sport that can really be replicated indoors so the best players and coaches can do is work on their swing, hit the weights and try and increase team camaraderie.

“Two weeks ago we had all the kids fill out a March Madness bracket and do some team building/bonding.  Last week when we were snowed out we had a ping-pong tournament.  We are trying to build team chemistry.  We don’t feel that you get much out of hitting in the gym and it sometimes is counterproductive.”

Fortunately the Minutemen will be able to rely on Russo, the two-time Gloucester County player of the year who has a scholarship offer from Wilmington (Del.) University, who is now in his fourth season with the program. He’s been like a second coach, helping the players with their swings during this awkward few weeks of the preseason.

“Joe has been great for the program,” Snyder says. “In practice he wants to play with the young guys and help them with their swing.  He is a true team player and has been a pleasure to coach for the past 4 years.”

LACROSSE: Deanna Knobloch, Moorestown

Moorestown’s girls lacrosse team saw its second game of the season get postponed due to the weather this past weekend. The Quakers, ranked No. 2 in the country in Brine and TopLaxRecruits.com’s national poll and No. 3 by Lacrosse Magazine, were slated to face Rumson-Fair Haven Saturday at home in their second game of the regular season.

Rain pushed that game to Monday afternoon and the Quakers prevailed 15-10 but played the game on the township’s turf field, not on its home field behind the school. The Quakers have three more games this week, today (April 1), Friday (April 4) and Saturday (April 5), all at home, against Eastern, Cinnaminson and Ridge, respectively.

Coach Deanna Knobloch’s team won its season opener on Thurs., March 27, 19-2, at Rancocas Valley, but many challenges lie ahead. Moorestown will have interesting games at home this season with Florida power, Vero Beach, Suffern (N.Y.), Strath Haven (Pa.), Ridgewood and West Windsor-Plainsboro North all invading the Quakers’ turf. Plus, the annual showdown with Shawnee will be played at the Quakers’ home, too.

But were the Quakers able to get prepared despite Mother Nature’s alternative plans?

“Everybody in the state has been in the same boat whether it’s been the snow or the rain,” said Knobloch. “Luckily for us we have the turf field to go to and we were able to get out there quite often. Considering we’d be otherwise stuck indoors, I would much prefer being on a turf field outside going on a full field then being stuck in a gym. I think we’ve only been outside on our actual game field two times, maybe three, beyond that, we’re on the turf which is not our actual game field.”

When they have been stuck inside, though, Knobloch and her team have made the best of it.

“The first thing we do is less running because we have so many girls with shin splints that to be on that hard surface (in the gym), it’s detrimental for them. I would say we focus more on basic skills and then breaking down our offense and defense which you can do in a 7-v-7 situation inside our gym.”

TENNIS: Jeff Holman, Haddonfield

On Monday (March 31), Haddonfield’s boys’ tennis team scrimmaged North Jersey squad Bernards and in Jeff Holman’s conversation with the opposing coach, he was shocked to find out that the Mountaineers had just five days in the entire preseason (since March 7) where they actually had outdoor practices.

Holman says his team has gotten a few more outdoor practices in than that, but also noted that in his 37 seasons of coaching the Bulldawgs boys’ team, he cannot remember a worse preseason, weatherwise.

“I can’t remember a worse preseason with the combination of cold and rain and snow,” says Holman, who is poised to win his 1,000th match as a boys’ tennis coach this season. His career record stands at 996-176. “I haven’t counted exactly how many days we got outside but we’ve managed a little better than the five days.”

And on the days that his squad hasn’t been able to get outdoors, it’s tough sledding when it comes to sharing space in the gym with the school’s other squads.

“Our usual approach to rainy days is we go into the gym and we run through the stands and up and down the steps,” said Holman. “Then we head into the wrestling room and do some sprints, some ladders and various stretching and strength exercises with bands and jump ropes and just try to work on fitness.

“We’re definitely behind where we should be and we haven’t had anywhere near the normal amount of time for our team challenge matches that determine our lineup and this effects our doubles teams moreso than anything.”

Like any coach looking for an edge, Holman finds the silver lining among the clouds (and snow and rain and wind) of the past month.

“Once the season starts and the weather gets better and you start the matches, arguably you don’t have enough time to work on the fitness so that’s one of the good aspects of the weather, we’ve had maybe more of a chance to work on our fitness than in a normal year and maybe that will give us a good foundation and it might be easier throughout the season to maintain their fitness.”

 One thing is for sure: There’s no looking back now as every spring sport will officially be underway by 3:30 this afternoon.

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