MIAC scrambling after extended winter storms postpone conference play
Through the end of March, St. Olaf spring sports were trending positively, with softball, baseball and both tennis teams starting strong in pursuit of a playoff spot. However, during the last two weeks each of these athletic programs have been confronted by an opponent no MIAC teams have been able to overcome – Minnesota weather.
A brief glance outside over the weekend is all the evidence needed to remember that Minnesota winters are notoriously stubborn when transitioning to spring. This obviously presents a frustrating predicament for St. Olaf sports teams that depend on cooperative weather in order to proceed with their conference schedules. Blizzards in April aren’t exactly conducive to outdoor competition on a baseball diamond or tennis court, meaning that, following their fast preseason starts, St. Olaf spring teams have been forced to wait in a war of attrition with the snow.
Some postponements and cancellations have been inevitable despite the athletic program’s best efforts to make accommodations. Several softball doubleheaders have been cancelled, delayed to May or pushed into indoor field houses, including St. Olaf’s rivalry bout with Carleton, which will take place in the Dundas Dome on Friday. Baseball hasn’t been able to play since March 28 after winning six of its previous seven contests, dashing any hopes of carrying that momentum into conference competition. The lousy weather has been particularly damaging for the tennis teams – despite playing conference matches, none of them have been able to take place on St. Olaf’s home court, opting instead for neutral sites in Minneapolis. Furthermore, since construction for the school’s new ice arena currently eliminates the viability of Skoglund’s fieldhouse, even finding a space to practice has been troublesome.
The entire athletic department has been hit hard by the tumultuous weather, even outside regularly scheduled spring sports competition. The 2018 Ole Pride J.O. volleyball tournament scheduled to take place in Skoglund and Tostrud this weekend was cancelled as a safety precaution due to dangerous road conditions. Planned exercise science presentations by St. Olaf alumni Mikki Hartmann-Matson ’17 and Christi Gratz ’17 focusing on employment options at clinics for Ole exercise science majors couldn’t transpire for the same reason. St. Olaf alum Dr. Mark Blegen ’94, now the Dean of Health Services at St. Catherine University, was scheduled to come speak about graduate school opportunities for students studying physical therapy. The event was called off along with all other athletic events.
In the rare instance that teams have been able to play, transitioning to indoor stadiums has been a complicated process due to the dramatic difference in terrain. For example, St. Olaf softball has been forced to adapt to astroturf that makes ground balls more lively and difficult to field while having to adjust to a ceiling that blends in with the ball and limits homerun potential. The Oles rank in the top half of the MIAC in total team homeruns and fielding percentage, meaning some of their greatest strengths could potentially be handicapped by the change in scenario.
“All of our conference games up to this point have been in domes with turf,” star pitcher Julie Graf ’20 said. “The biggest challenge is definitely the ceiling of the domes … I can guarantee that our power hitters would have a lot more dingers in the books if it weren’t for the dome ceiling. Being indoors all the time for an outdoor sport can get monotonous for sure, but our coaches do a good job of mixing things up and keeping us on our toes.”
“Fingers crossed for some warmth and sunshine. We are very hopeful that we’ll be able to get out on Mabel Shirley field before the end of our season.”
Game cancellations and postponements of this magnitude indicate that teams will be frantically scampering to make up for April’s poor weather by playing an abridged, marathon conference schedule in May. The MIAC announced a reworked baseball schedule on Wednesday afternoon detailing its plan to cram the entire regular season into a brief, two-week timespan before the playoffs. This revised schedule details that teams will play in round robin “pods,” with Concordia hosting St. Olaf alongside St. Thomas and Augsburg this weekend – the rest of the MIAC will meet at St. John’s for a similar format. The Oles will face three consecutive days of double-headers to begin a stretch of 20 games in 17 days.
This raises durability concerns, especially for pitchers. Cramming an entire season into two weeks is certainly possible, but extra cautions must be taken to minimize injury risks. However, Graf is confident that St. Olaf and the MIAC are up to the task.
“Everyone in our conference is in the same boat,” Graf said. “It certainly isn’t ideal, but we have a very compact schedule as it is and our team has a lot of depth, so it’s nothing we can’t handle.”