Brutal winter turning spring sports into whole new ball game

It is one of the first signs that spring is right around the corner: Little League registration!

I couldn’t help but feel a tingle of excitement.

All of which was quickly replaced by numbness in my frozen hands on the steering wheel, as I tried to keep my car from sliding off the icy, snow packed roads.

Turns out Robin Renner was also driving in the snowstorm Saturday night. And as he surveyed yet another polar vortex that had turned the area into Siberia, Neuqua Valley High School’s head baseball coach shook his head and turned to wife Diane.

“It’s hard to believe,” he said, “that our first practice is Monday.”

We all know spring sports in Chicago can be unpleasant, with rain, blustery winds, occasional snow flurries and temperatures at times sinking, e-gads, below 40 degrees.

What I wouldn’t give for those conditions now.

Instead, we’ve got record-breaking snow and sub-zero temperatures still hanging around … with few signs of relief. Those weather forecasters we’ve grown to know and hate are, not surprisingly, predicting a colder than usual March.

“Spring,” as one forecaster put it gently, “will be a slow process.”

All of which has sent athletic directors and coaches into panic mode. The first of this month generally starts off with hundreds of kids in each school’s sports programs — from badminton and girls soccer to basketball, baseball and track — competing for limited indoor space. But this year it’s going to be exceptionally brutal because these young athletes may not be getting outside at any point during the month.

That is true in Naperville and throughout the Chicago area.

“It is not going to be a fun situation,” conceded Ralph Drendel, interim athletic director at Kaneland High School. “But there’s nothing we can do about it. We need at least six to seven days of 50 degrees or more for the snow to melt and get all the frost out.”

Then, of course, fields have to dry out before they can even begin to think about using them.

For Renner and his Neuqua Wildcats, the first day of baseball practice took place at 5:30 in the morning. And each day will bring rotating time slots with other teams, some going as late as 9 p.m.

“The kids are excited now since it’s the first week of practice … but I have a feeling this is going to get old fast.”

Schools aren’t the only ones left out in the cold. Jeff Long, public relations manager for Fox Valley Park District, says grounds crews are a couple weeks behind schedule getting fields ready. And while some groups, he noted, are contemplating snowblowing the fields to clear them, “it’s just not possible when you have as many fields as we do.”

The park district is also concerned coaches and kids, delirious with cabin fever, will rush onto the fields during the first nice days, and permanently damage turf that is simply not ready for the pitter patter of cleats.

“We need to get the word out they have to hold off a little bit,” said Long, “to let the grass grow.”

While many high school teams plan trips south during spring break to get some playing time in, those schedules this season are going to be particularly challenging. As Renner points out, the team is going to be facing opponent with eight to 10 games under their belts, while the local athletes have yet to get outside.

Tom Clifford, owner of Sports Zone is “getting inundated with calls” from high school and traveling teams wanting to reserve practice time in his large indoor complex. But the Aurora facility is already booked up from last fall, he said.

“High schools are really up against it,” said Clifford, who also is a father to Naperville Central athletes. “Players are going to start getting depressed being stuck in gyms for all of March.”

And officials are going to get more desperate.

“I’ve been trying to get the tennis court cleaned out just so they can go in and hit a few balls,” said Drendel. “But I can’t even get that done.”

The only good thing, coaches agree, is that everyone is in the same situation.

“It’s crazy,” said Renner. “But what are you going to do?”

Certainly, being able to play ball outside is not the most pressing issue facing the Naperville area this spring.

But as Long pointed out, “To a kid holding a new ball glove, it is the biggest problem.”