Veteran Fuquay-Varina High baseball coach Milton Senter has been hitting infield practice on a concrete floor.
The Bengals’ hitters fill an indoor baseball facility with the ping of metal bats. Pitchers throw on indoor mounds. Outfielders, well, outfielders do whatever outfielders can do inside an indoor baseball facility.
Fuquay-Varina, a traditional baseball power under Senter, was scheduled to play its first game last week.
But entering this week, three weeks after official practice began, the Bengals had not set foot on their field this season. Not one practice on the field.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Senter, who has coached at the school for 38 years. “We’ve had some bad weather early in the season before, but never anything like this. I don’t know when we’ll be able to get on the field.”
The Bengals’ situation is not unique.
Bonnie Hodge’s Apex softball team had practiced outside once, but not on the field. Millbrook softball coach Josh Bunting believes the first time his club takes the field will be the day of the first game.
Northwood athletic director Jason Amy said the program takes pride in practicing hard. That’s hard to do when you can’t practice on the field.
Middle Creek softball coach Robbie Wray has practiced on the Mustangs’ field twice, only once using the entire field. The team is trying to prepare for the season, but it is difficult to do that throwing in the gym or hitting inside a net cage inside, he said.
“There no substitute for being in the dirt and on the field,” Wray said. “We face the reality of playing a game with only having been on the dirt one time. … We will have to adjust quickly and hope to be able to compete despite mother nature’s curve ball.”
Heritage baseball coach Tony Piercy said his infielders had not taken a ground ball from the plate this season until Saturday’s 15-14 victory over Holly Springs.
“We have been taking them in the gym, outfield, and one time we got to hit them from first base to second base in the dirt,” Piercy said. “It was a lot of fun to finally play a game. These guys worked really hard all off-season and were very excited to get on the field.”
Baseball, softball hit hard
The weather forced area schools to close and wipe out weeks of scheduled practices, including tryout periods. Carrboro High athletic director April Ross lived in wintry Iowa and Ohio for 14 years, but has never seen whole blocks of practice and games wiped away like this year in central North Carolina.
All spring high school sports have been affected – there can be no practice in any sport if the school is closed because of severe weather – but softball and baseball have been hit the hardest.
“You can play lacrosse, soccer and some other spring sports when it is wet, but you can’t play baseball and softball in these conditions,” Senter said.
Fuquay is lucky that it can use an indoor baseball facility to hit, throw and even hit ground balls off concrete, Senter said.
“We’ve got it better than 90 percent, 99 percent, of the other teams because we can go inside,” Senter said. “But it is not the same as being on the field.”
And not even the Bengals can play indoors. Fuquay already has canceled or postponed all of its games through this Friday. The cancellations are disappointing to Senter.
“We work at baseball nine to 10 months a year. We take high school baseball pretty seriously,” he said. “To see your players’ season slipping away is tough.”
Coaches say many of the games cannot be rescheduled. The N.C. High School Athletic Association limits softball and baseball teams to three games a week, four games if the teams are not in school for the fourth. The playoffs begin May 13 and season wraps up with a best-of-three championship series on June 5-6.
Some high school baseball and softball coaches appealed to the NCHSAA to extend the season by two weeks to help offset the loss of practice time and games, but the NCHSAA has no plans to extend the spring sports season.
“Once you start changing the end of the season, you impact a great number of things,” said Que Tucker, a deputy commissioner of the NCHSAA.
Pushing the season back two weeks would extend the playoffs into mid-to-late June, well after most schools have graduated, Tucker said. An extended season would impact final exams and graduations.
“We start the season with the end in mind,” Tucker said. “There are already some systems who think we play the championships too late, after students have graduated. We have heard that concern for years.
“And with baseball and softball there is no guarantee that we won’t have weather delays during the finals that push them back even more.”
Tucker said the NCHSAA may allow baseball and softball teams to play more games per week, but only if the games can be played safely.
“A big concern would be to make sure the pitchers are not pitching too often,” Tucker said.
It is too late for this year, but Middle Creek’s Wray said he would like for the NCHSAA to adjust the starting date of practice for spring sports.
Teams began official practice this year on Feb. 16. Some coaches would prefer a starting date closer to Feb. 1 to allow preseason practice time if days are lost because of bad weather.
“This has happened to all spring sports for at least the last two years. Hopefully the NCHSAA will at least adjust the start date of tryouts and practices to give us a little flexibility,” Wray said. “North Carolina weather in February is always tricky.”
Right now, the coaches all agree on one thing.
“We really need some dry, sunny days,” said Apex’s Hodge.
W.E. Warnock contributed to this story.