It was March 2016 and high school athletes in Connecticut were in the middle of tryouts. Chad Knight of Staples High remembers the time as some of the worst conditions he’s ever practiced in.
“It starting snowing 30 minutes in, and we had only just finished warmups,” said Knight, one of the best baseball players in the state.
Ah, welcome to spring sports in Connecticut. The season comes in almost literally like a lion, roaring and making its presence known by wreaking havoc on schedules with its unpredictable weather.
The first day of baseball practice for Knight and other athletes is always a roll of the dice. The junior all-state pitcher has no idea whether he’ll take to the field outside, or be stuck inside.
Consider the elements last week. Just a few days after practice officially began, Connecticut was hit with yet another winter storm.
It didn’t feel like baseball season on that March afternoon.
“We are really on a day-to-day basis,” Knight said. “Some days it’s beautiful out and we can get on the field, and some days it snows half a foot.”
It’s no secret that spring is a beast to handle. So how do some of the top area athletes take on arguably the hardest sports season in the calendar year?
“Playing and practicing in tough weather conditions is definitely a test of both your mental toughness and desire to play the game,” Knight said. “If you can make it through the harsh weather in the beginning of the season, then you can play in anything.”
Spring begins in winter
During the long winter months, it’s a safe bet you’ll find Hamden High junior Alex Aurora somewhere with a golf club.
“If I’m not out playing golf in the winter, then I’m practicing indoors,” he said.
Aurora, who won the CIAC Division I individual title last year, trains in Bethany at Fore Seasons Golf Club, which is basically a warehouse turned into a practice facility. There, he’s able to work on just about all aspects of his game when the weather won’t allow him to be out on a driving range.
“Beside seeing ball flight, you can do everything that you can on a golf course, so it’s nice,” Aurora said.
The same goes for Hopkins senior tennis player Catherine duBoulay. The Westport native, who helped guide the Hilltoppers to a Class B New England Prep School title last year, plays indoors weekly at Intensity in Norwalk, a facility with hard courts. Like Aurora, she’s able to work on just about all aspects of her game.
Because pitching is so physically demanding, Knight does not play fall ball to give his arm a rest. He uses that time to get a jump-start on his offseason training.
“During the offseason I do all of my training indoors in batting cages and gyms due to the cold weather,” he said.
Notre Dame-Fairfield senior softball player Lucy Grant, a first baseman from Bethel, starts spring training in the fall. The repetitions help going into the season, making for a seamless transition.
“I start doing hitting lessons every couple weeks and participate in the fall travel season with my summer team,” Grant said. “Playing all year around helps me maintain my consistency and keep up with my skills.”
Mastering the elements
Last June, Aurora won the Division 1 individual golf title in the rain.
“I played a lot of rounds in the rain but haven’t really played any good rounds in the rain before,” said Aurora in a GameTimeCT.com interview last year. “I know from experience you have to club up (take an extra club), swing easy and keep the ball down.”
Chalk those tips up from being a veteran spring athlete in the state of Connecticut. While there’s no exact science for the perfect transition from indoors to outdoors, especially in a New England state, it does get easier with time and experience.
“It’s difficult to play (tennis) with the sun shining in my eyes after practicing in an indoor facility for six months,” duBoulay said. “As I get farther into the season, I get more and more comfortable playing outdoors.”
Beside the challenge of the weather, mimicking certain aspects of the outdoor game cannot be done indoors.
“Being indoors is definitely challenging mostly because you really cannot simulate field dimensions,” Knight said. “In the northeast you really can’t even step on a baseball field until mid-March or later unlike down south or out west.”
Added duBoulay: “The Hopkins tennis courts are slower than the Intensity courts, that is the ball moves slower, so it takes some time to readjust the timing of my strokes. I think all players have this issue. Even when playing at two different indoor facilities, the speed of the ball is never the same.”
Knight explained that all aspects of playing in the cold are not enjoyable — the inability to grip the ball, the sting on your hands when you hit the ball off the end of the bat, the pain when you catch a ball on the palm of your glove.
“The worst weather experience I ever had on a softball field was last year,” Grant said. “We played in 25-degree weather during a freezing rain storm. My skin turned purple halfway through the game and I was visibly shaking. …We won, though.”
But if you can conquer the mental aspect of the elements, the harsh circumstances don’t play a major role.
“If you really love just playing baseball, no weather restrictions will prevent you from achieving success on the field,” Knight said.
For The Love Of The Game
If given his way, Knight would live in Malibu and have ideal weather to play outdoors. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Knight, who has been playing baseball in Connecticut since he was 6 or 7 years old, knows the challenging, frustrating spring weather is just part of living in the northeast.
“It’s not the perfect setting, but no matter what we always find a way to practice,” he said.
When conditions do not allow for on-field work, Knight said the Wreckers — the defending Class LL state champions — will practice in their field house, where they have a drop down batting cage and room for fielder and pitchers to get their reps in.
DuBoulay and her teammates will usually head to Milford Indoor Tennis, about 10 minutes away, and get a practice in when the outdoor courts are too wet to use.
While the spring weather may force athletes get more creative while resulting in games and practices being shuffled around, it’s all worth it come May and June.
“Despite the hectic schedule, I think we all reap the rewards of our hard work in the form of our match wins as well as personal and team improvement,” duBoulay said.
Added Grant: “Being in close quarters all the time for practices, team dinners and the constant stream of games can force even the most different of people to develop friendships, or a close team bond at the very least.”