Adolph Larson baseball field

The Adolph Larson baseball field in Cambridge, located along Fern Street North, sits empty with the bases still covered.Photo by Rachel Kytonen

Easter Sunday this year was a stark reminder of the uncertainties of weather in Minnesota.

A warm, sunny start to spring was quickly slapped back to reality when snow flurries interrupted Easter egg hunts around this area.

But if you ask spring sports coaches, they might tell you the warm temperatures and sunny skies were more painful.

“The past couple of years, the weather has been hit-or-miss, and we haven’t been able to plan more than a day or two ahead,” Cambridge-Isanti baseball coach Mike Bergloff said. “A couple of years ago we had 20 practices inside. But this year something else has been holding us back.”

That “something else” is the coronavirus that has kept area athletes from practicing together.

“I was outside on March 10, and the weather was beautiful – I was excited, thinking we would be able to go outside,” North Branch softball coach Kathy Crudo said. “But now we’re not even allowed to be around each other. It’s just heartbreaking. This would be a lot easier to take if there were 10 inches of snow on the ground.”

The ground rules currently facing high school sports teams around the state are clear but draconian: Coaches and athletes cannot have contact with one another, meaning practices and games are out of the question. Coaches can offer training suggestions, but cannot make practice regimens mandatory.

“At this point, I can only be a support person,” Braham golf coach Lauren Kiesz said. “I know some of our kids are practicing on their own, but if they don’t, they don’t. Knock wood they are doing their work.”

In short, area coaches are adapting as best they can.

North Branch softball hopes for magical season

Crudo still remembers the scene she witnessed in mid-March, around the time the MSHSL was making the difficult decision to suspend the start of the spring sports season.

“I walked out the school building doors, and I saw six or seven players on the softball fields together,” she said. “It just killed me to have to get in my car and drive away – and not be there for them. That was tough.”

The Vikings are excited about the coming season, thanks to a number of returnees from a year ago. The foundation is formed by two senior captains who will play Division II softball next spring in pitcher Kristi Pilz and shortstop Macy Brodin.

“Last season they were patient with the rebuilding after advancing to the state tournament the previous year,” Crudo said of Brodin and Pilz. “They knew that this year we would be ready to roll. We had in our mind that this year would be the payoff from last year.”

But Crudo is quick to add that those two players are far from the only ones suffering heartbreak.

“The juniors are hoping to have a great year to catch the eye of college coaches,” she said. “And a number of kids are stepping up to the varsity for the first time, and they’re missing that. I feel for them, because they put in the work and the sweat to get their time on the varsity. They paid their dues.”

North Branch continues to pay dues, preparing for a season that is not guaranteed.

“Kristi Pilz has been pitching almost every day,” Crudo said. “If we get a May season, she knows she will be ‘hosing’ just about every day. But the other players are on group chats, checking in with one another. Even if they don’t have someone to throw to, they work on things like agility. They just don’t have me breathing down their necks – and I bet they enjoy that!”

Crudo meant that last statement as a joke. But eventually the North Branch softball team will wish for the day their coach will be able to push them to success.

“You can’t instill that kind of passion in a player – they either have it or they don’t,” Crudo said. “Our programs feeds off that energy, and love and desire to play the game.

“We’re going to hold on to hope. I’m selfish for these girls. I want them to experience the success they have worked for.”

C-I baseball looks to take another step forward

Mike Bergloff is torturing himself.

The C-I baseball coach constantly looks at the calendar, figuring out where he would be and what his team would be doing each day. Last Thursday he was reminded his team was scheduled to play a road game; earlier that week was the season opener, followed by the home opener the following day.

“Yep. Every day I check to see where we would be playing,” he said. “When I was outside this afternoon, all I could think was, ‘Wow, with this wind, it might not be bad that we didn’t play.’ But Monday and Tuesday were beautiful days for baseball.”

That schedule has become little more than a memory as the team awaits a signal that it can meet for its first practice.

“A few days before things were postponed, I moved the equipment from the diamond to the locker room – and it still sits there,” Bergloff said. “That is painful. We have a good group of seniors coming back, and it looked as if our numbers would be bigger than last year. And when we saw the weather reports, we thought we might get off to a good start.”

There are things baseball players can do to prepare for the start of the season, such as throwing every day or taking practice swings at balls on a batting tee. But that’s a far cry from practices or games.

“You can’t replicate drills and skills that you need everyone for,” Bergloff said. “There also are things you can’t do, like field ground balls or fly balls.

“But everyone wants to be around the team, and that’s what we’re missing. It’s a social activity. There’s camaraderie in the dugout and on the bus and in practice. There’s a lot of fun stuff that goes on outside of the games.”

Bergloff said he thinks it would take players roughly two weeks to get ready for the season.

“Our varsity team has done a lot of things during open gyms in the winter and in the summer, so they know one another,” he said. “But getting arms in shape, learning roles, and just getting ready – there wouldn’t be a lot of time.”

And given the chance between playing a game in a howling wind or not playing? Well, what kind of choice is that?

“Absolutely, I would much rather have played,” Bergloff said. “We played a game last year when it was snowing. We just want to play.”

Braham golf keeps swinging for improvement

Last year was the first for Lauren Kiesz as the golf coach at Braham, and the weather merely laughed at her plans to prepare for the start of the season.

“When our players walked onto the course for their first meet, they had never hit a golf ball outside,” she said. “The course opened up for play but didn’t open the [driving] range. So their swing on the first hole was the first swing they took outside that season.”

That is why Kiesz brings a glass-half-full vision to the coming season.

“The hopeful part of me thinks that, if we could go back to school in May, our golf team could legitimately pick up on Day 1 just like they did last year,” she said. “I’m hopeful golf courses will open quickly, because I would love our kids to be able to play.”

Before the MSHSL made its ruling to suspend the start of the spring sports season, the Bombers had held two days of practice. And those two days had Kiesz excited for this season and the years ahead.

“We had some younger kids come out, and they had some very promising swings,” she said. “They were very interested and very ‘into’ golf, so I’m hoping we can play some golf soon. There are other ways kids can choose to spend their time, and we’re hoping those kids come back and stick with it. I hope I can see them soon.”

The newcomers injected energy into the program.

“We have one senior, Kyra Johnson, on the team,” Kiesz said. “Those younger kids were excited to get golf started. Then suddenly they had to stay home.”

Golf is a bit different from sports such as baseball and softball, since each golfer competes individually, meaning each golfer can practice shots without teammates. But there is a limit to the skills a golfer can sharpen.

“Since we’ve been out of school, I’ve gotten pictures of kids showing me that they are practicing out in their yards,” Kiesz said. “But I know that golf courses around the state are closed by the governor. So kids can practice on their own, but they can’t go on the course.”

Kiesz, who teaches kindergarten at Braham, said she feels for all students dealing with the current restrictions.

“High school kids are used to using their [technology] to get assignments and turn in assignments, so distance learning probably isn’t that much different for them,” she said. “They’re probably feeling more bored to tears, being stuck at home with their families.”

Rush City track hopes to experience season with seniors

For Rush City’s Mike Vaughan, a spring without track practices and meets is difficult to fathom.

“It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around this,” the school’s track coach admitted. “This is my 19th year coaching, and usually at this time of year, track is ‘on.’ This is quite a switch for me.”

Funny thing is, Vaughan misses the chance to interact with his athletes, especially the seniors, as much as he misses the sport itself.

“By the senior year of track season, the kids are changing a lot,” he explained. “I see them grow and mature into fabulous young men and women during a pivotal point in their life, and to be around seniors at that time is just a blast. So to not have that leaves a gap in my heart.

“I try to reach out to them electronically, but it’s not the same. It’s just not the same as spending two or three hours outside with the kids in the ‘beautiful’ weather of a Minnesota spring. We all go through things together, and every season is an amazing journey.”

Because of the uncertainties of Minnesota weather, Vaughan said his program has learned over the years how to adapt to practices in challenging circumstances.

“We’ve learned how to use body weights and to work out indoors,” he said. “The one thing I’ve told all of our athletes is that, if we do have a season in May, they will have to show up looking as if they have been practicing.”

With the variety of different events, Vaughan has created different practice tools for this unusual April.

“With the distance kids, I remind them that, if the season starts in May, they don’t want to be out of shape,” Vaughan said. “So I encourage them to run by themselves, and I’ve seen some of them on the roads.

“For the sprints, I encourage them to run and do body-shaping exercises around the house.”

For the technical events, Vaughan has used the same online technology he now must use to teach his classes, especially those in “technical” events such as the jumps and throws.

“A pole vaulter is not the same as a shot putter, and a distance runner isn’t the same as a hurdler,” he explained. “For some of these events, it’s like having six skills wrapped up in one. And some of the events are extremely technical. So I’ve created platforms to introduce the events, showing them the positions their bodies should be in and the forms they are supposed to follow.”

Vaughan’s videos include a look at how high-level athletes perform skills in their specialties.

“Sometimes it takes hurdlers some time to learn all the skills, and suddenly when they are a senior, everything clicks,” he said. “A seventh or eighth grade girl may not have the strength she does as a senior. Right now they can condition their bodies, and when May hits we hope to fine-tune their skills.”

But the Tigers’ coach also has sprinkled in some motivational videos.

“I just don’t want these kids to lose heart,” he said. “It’s a mental thing, but it’s also an emotional thing. I tell the seniors not to lose hope. In May and June, we hope that we can come back and have a season.

“But the most important thing is to have everyone stay healthy. Track helps prepare you for life, and this is something bigger than track. I just hope everyone has that perspective: Overcoming obstacles is something we learn in track. And we will overcome this.”

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