A-K Valley teams benefit from southern getaways
The first sports team from Knoch to play out of state almost didn't want to come home.
Knoch's softball team opened the season with a tournament in Taylor Mill, Ky., known as “Softball City,” about a five-hour drive from Saxonburg.
While the weather wasn't much warmer there, fields were drier and playable, and teams weren't fighting cabin fever while practicing in gymnasiums.
“We took a 15-passenger van. It wasn't the most comfortable ride, but we all jumped in and had a great time,” Knoch coach Tim Knappenberger said. “I don't think there was a boring moment; it's something that really enhanced the high school experience for our girls.”
And while Knoch was rounding third in its fifth game, most of the other WPIAL teams were letting out another collective sigh as they glanced at the 10-day forecast.
But Knoch wasn't the only Alle-Kiski team to snub the increasingly annoying Western Pennsylvania weather to get a jump-start on the season — and, potentially, gain a competitive advantage over opponents who were back home twiddling their thumbs and making mud pies.
Baseball teams at Plum and Apollo-Ridge flew to Florida to ignite their otherwise stagnant schedules.
Plum went 3-0 in Bradenton, even getting in some practices under sunshine.
“Pretty soon (in the WPIAL) it will be game, practice, game, practice for teams,” Plum coach Carl Vollmer said. “This is one of those years. Our trip justified itself more than any other year.
“We figured we spent 30 hours on a baseball field. You might not get the opportunity to do that in two weeks' time up here.”
Apollo-Ridge played five games in and around Fort Pierce, Fla. It was the third time the team had made the trip south.
The Vikings even played another WPIAL team, Vincentian, at Vero Beach.
Strangely, the Vikings' last game was rained out. Better than a snow-out, the team thought.
“The idea to leave the great state of Pennsylvania is to go down there and get a leg-up on the competition,” Apollo-Ridge coach Jeremy Smail said.
‘A perfect trip'
The road trips were more than spring training for local teams, especially since they returned to more drab conditions and the reality that many WPIAL teams were still 0-0 in the standings.
Play since has picked up, albeit slowly.
At one point last week, Knoch had played more games than any baseball or softball team in the WPIAL.
Advantages were gained in terms of strategy and getting acquainted with teammates in outdoor game situations.
Smail said Apollo-Ridge used four different lineups on its trip.
“The first year we went (to Florida), we came back and lost our edge we gained,” Smail said. “The weather didn't cooperate. Last year, we were fortunate. We had a mild winter, and the weather was nice. We rolled into section play. We had a lot of games in and had worked some kinks out before section play.
“I think this year we still have a slight advantage. We won't be experimenting in games that count.”
Knoch won four of five games against Kentucky teams while hitting .433 with 57 runs. It reached the championship game of the 16-team tournament.
“This is my fifth year coaching, and that was the best experience we've ever had,” Knappenberger said. “I would consider it a perfect trip for everyone involved.
“It's good to have game experience going into the season.”
Plum also used its trip to work on situational baseball and begin to form an identity.
“We figured some things out, and we competed,” Vollmer said. “We have a better idea of what we have. You have a chance to see what you're trying to accomplish. That's hard to do in the gym.”
Bake sales, candy canes
Teams were greeted with much of the same uncertainty when they returned home.
Knoch had three games scheduled for the week it returned, but all of them were canceled. The team didn't practice outdoors on its home field until Tuesday.
Plum also had limited action when it came home.
“We were delayed at the airport by a storm and got home at 3 in the morning,” Vollmer said. “But we got ready to play Kiski Area. They hadn't even been on the field yet.”
Plum has kept busy by practicing on the school's turf football field and in the school parking lot when the gridiron was snow-covered.
“We have so many kids from different grades, and there's a nice blend,” Vollmer said. “But we also have kids who have never played together before.”
Booster clubs funded all three of the road trips, and costs ranged from $130 to $450 out-of-pocket per player, with most of the costs covered by fundraising.
Night at the races events and youth camps played a key role, although Knoch chipped away the old-fashioned way with bake sales, raffles, “and we had a Pets with Santa Night and sold candy canes,” Knappenberger said. “We're hoping to do this trip every year.”
Plum and Apollo-Ridge used online package-planners to book their out-of-state games.
Plum went with Tampa Bay Spring Training and Apollo-Ridge used Florida Coast Spring Training. The outfits book hotels and meals and set up games similar to the way golf trips are handled.
Plum was one of the first six schools to work with Tampa Bay in 2006.
“Now there are 100 schools participating,” Vollmer said.
Knappenberger said a parent of one of his players discovered the Kentucky tournament.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.