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Prep athletes try to salvage another season

City of Duluth park maintenance workers smooth out the baseline from third base to home plate Thursday at Wade Stadium. With the stadium in rough shape coming out of the snowy winter, all high school game have been moved elsewhere. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Duluth Denfeld’s Crystal McClarey catches a fly ball during the Hunters’ game against Cloquet on Friday at the Wade softball fields. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Barnum baseball coach Tony Bender called the News Tribune on May 6 to report a score from his team’s game against Moose Lake-Willow River.

Before the conversation ended, Bender was asked the Bombers’ win-loss record. His reply was as short as this spring sports campaign in the Northland: 2-0.

More than two-thirds of the way through the regular season, which technically started in late March, Barnum had managed a measly two games. And the Bombers weren’t alone.

For the second consecutive spring, weather woes have decimated prep sports teams’ schedules. Snow, so rampant during a historically harsh winter, lingered well into spring; on April 10, for example, Ely baseball coach Frank Ivancich reported 8-foot snowbanks bordering the Timberwolves’ field.

Conditions have improved since then, of course, but not by much. Incessant snow gave way to several weeks of incessant rain, and some fields have remained unplayable. Baseball and softball teams — not to mention golfers and tennis players — have struggled just to get outside. For weeks, they were cooped up in gymnasiums.

The problem is compounded for high school seniors, many of whom are seeing their final seasons washed away.

‘It’s brutal’ There was a thought — more of a pipe dream, it turns out — that the Northland was due for a break this spring after what unfolded a year ago, when April turned into the snowiest month on record in     Duluth.

Certainly, a reprieve was in the forecast for 2014. Right?

Think again.

“It’s brutal,” Duluth East senior golfer Tyler Tedlund said last week. “We’ve had so many meets canceled the past two years that it should just be a fall sport.”

The Greyhound could be forgiven for his blunt assessment. East has had “eight or nine” meets wiped out, according to coach Brian Rud, with the bulk of those gone for good. The Greyhounds had to wait until April 26 for their first meet, almost six weeks after the official start of practice on March 17. That meant a lot of indoor golf for Tedlund and his teammates, who tried to stay sharp at Twin Ports Golf Studio in Superior.

None of that was necessary, Tedlund said, during his sophomore season when “we were out on the golf course by, I think, March 25.”

Across town last week, the Duluth Denfeld baseball team practiced outside for just the third time this spring. On Thursday the Hunters were forced onto a makeshift baseball field at the Wheeler Athletic Complex after being displaced from still-soggy Wade Stadium. They were working out in 41-degree temperatures on a day that saw an intense burst of mid-afternoon snow.

Complaints were sparse, though.

“Anytime you’re outside, it’s always nice,” pitcher Ryan Rukavina said.

Time running out Rukavina had hoped for better conditions during his final prep season, though.

“After canceling and postponing so many games last year, it was kind of like, ‘when are we going to get our break?’ ” he said. “We never seemed to get outside and when we did it was always cold or dreary. Maybe one of these days we’ll get a nice day — we’re still hoping for it.”

That has been the prevailing sentiment recently as frustration mounts. Because of all the rain, games continually have been pushed back, but time’s running out.

Hard as it is to believe, softball’s postseason starts Monday. Any postponements that have yet to be squeezed in are lost, and squads that anticipated playing 20 games — the maximum allowed by the Minnesota State High School League — instead are settling for 12 or 15.

Or 10, as is the case with Barnum’s softball team, which played six games last week. The Bombers will enter the playoffs with a 4-6 record, more than half their games coming in a four-day stretch. They open Monday against Ogilvie in a Section 5A game.

“It’s already playoff time,” Barnum senior Lauren Hultgren said. “It’s hard to believe that it’s already here.”

Hultgren and her teammates have had one outdoor practice. The pitcher and infielder said this spring trumps last season in terms of misery.

“At least last year it felt like we did get a few more games in, and it wasn’t as packed as this year,” she said. “It was a little more spread out.”

Baseball playoffs start next week, setting up a mad dash to the finish line. Essentially, if weather allows — a colossal “if” — everybody in the area will be in action this week trying to cram in as many games as possible.

“We’re trying to make those up for the seniors so it’s not as much of a wash as it could be,” Denfeld baseball coach Cal Fougner said.

Silver Bay’s baseball team, which is 3-4 entering the season’s home stretch, also has had just one practice outside. That doesn’t include the day earlier this spring that the Mariners tried to take fly balls on the football field, which was still frozen. The temperature that day hovered near 30 degrees, which prompted coach Ward Wallin to forbid his players from throwing the ball back in.

It was too cold.

“I feel so bad for the seniors, going through it two years in a row,” Wallin said.

Hunters without a home For Fougner and the Hunters, a rough spring got worse when they found out they wouldn’t be allowed in Wade Stadium. Youngsters grow up pining to play at the old-school ballpark, and Fougner said he feels for his veterans who won’t get that chance during their senior year.

The stadium’s playing surface is in poor shape after the prolonged winter, and city crews are trying to get it ready for the Duluth Huskies’ May 27 opener.

“Wade is a historic park,” Fougner said. “It’s really special to be on that field, where St. Scholastica plays, to be on the same field that has that history when you step on it, 70 years of baseball history.

“It’s tough for them to not be able to get out there for their senior season.”

Denfeld’s plight has been exacerbated by the absence of a true baseball diamond — other than Wade — in the western part of the city. The Hunters were able to use the field at the old Duluth Central High School site last season, but it hasn’t been maintained and is no longer playable.

Instead, Denfeld has turned nomadic, playing games at Duluth East and the Lake Park Little League complex. Closer to home, the Hunters have practiced at Wheeler. One of the complex’s softball fields is baseball friendly, with a pitching mound and the option of moving the bases out to 90 feet.

None of the venues, however, can replace Wade, the relic that still boasts a wealth of charm.

“It’s been something we’ve always been around,” Rukavina said. “Playing Little League in West Duluth, we’d always play behind it. Then, come senior year, it’s our last year of playing baseball and we’re not out there.”

Umpires spread thin Pat Milinovich is one of the Northland’s longest-serving umpires. A veteran baseball and softball ump of more than two decades, Milinovich said the past two springs are among the worst he’s ever seen.

Milinovich, who oversees the Tri-State Officials Association and its roughly 45 members, works closely with area athletic directors to staff every game. Recently, the MSHSL relaxed its requirement that every contest have at least two officials. It simply wasn’t feasible. On those rare days that the weather does cooperate, just about every baseball and softball team in the Northland has a game on the docket.

Some, trying to play twice or even three times in a day, start as early as 1 p.m., even during the week. Most of Milinovich’s officials are still working at that time.

“It’s just been crazy — you couldn’t keep up with it,” Milinovich said Friday en route to working a South Ridge baseball game in Culver. “They’re coming in left and right.

“I though last year was bad; this season is even worse.”

Milinovich also works college softball games. He called one series this spring — in St. Cloud — because area clubs had to play almost exclusively on the road.