HEBRON — “I lost it in the light,” said a member of the Hebron Academy softball team at a recent practice.
It’s not an unusual phrase to be uttered, but the crash of a ball off a hard board is a sound unfamiliar in the sport.
Yet that’s the reality for the Lumberjacks, who are practicing in Robinson Arena — home of the Hebron ice hockey programs — with a week to go before their regular season is scheduled to begin.
That season opener is slated to be played Friday at home, on the same softball diamond at Dwyer Fields that was still covered in snow while a Lumberjack player lost a pop fly in the fluorescent lights of Robinson Arena.
“We’re all worried about the likelihood of being able to get in our first game with New Hampton, and what’s going to happen if they have to get rescheduled because we have a short amount of time before our seniors leave,” Hebron interim coach Molly Paul said. “And it’s a very short season anyways. So it is something that we have to work through, I guess.”
The Lumberjacks have been “working through” preparing for a sport played on dirt grass while practicing on a concrete floor, surrounded by hard plastic boards topped in plexiglass.
“It’s difficult,” Paul said. “We did a pop-fly drill the other day and we’re hitting beams. You know, it’s tough. So we’re working through it. There’s no boards out on the field; we’re bumping into boards. But we just tell them to play anything. Hustle to every ball, no matter what happens. We’re working through it. It is certainly tough, though.”
The players have taken their less-than-ideal practice conditions in stride, however.
“You don’t really get the right feel for how the ball moves, like on the ground, and so it’s hard to prepare our outfield, especially, and the infield for grounders,” junior catcher/shortstop Hadwin Belcher said. “But it’s a better alternative than not practicing.”
Indoor practice has become a regular occurrence for the Lumberjacks, who are able to break out their gloves as soon as the winter season is over at Hebron. They only have to wait for the ice to thaw, even if the snow outside hasn’t yet done the same thing.
“The first couple grounders, they’re a little wild, so you got to adjust,” junior infielder Eliza Beaudin said. “You really need to keep your glove in the dirt and just get low, keep your body in front of it. Using a pitching machine, it’s not ideal, but it’s the speed that we need to be practicing on. It’s as much as we can do inside the rink.”
“We’re definitely doing everything we can inside, just to get ready,” Paul said. “The snow doesn’t seem like it’s going away anytime soon. So we’re just trying to be creative, we have very fast-paced practices … doing a lot of drills, changing things up every 15 minutes or so to keep them going. Doing a lot of throwing, doing a multitude of different fielding drills.
“They just got in the cage for the first time a couple days ago, so we’re really excited about that. So we’re doing everything we can inside to try and get ready. Obviously the sooner the snow goes away, the easier things will be. But things are going well indoors.”
While the players are once again adjusting to the nuances of softball on hard floors — just in time to adjust back to dirt and grass — they are also adjusting to life without head coach Kathleen Ftorek, who is on maternity leave this season. But that should be an easier adjustment, according to Paul.
“She’s been coaching for a long time. But I’ve been here for four years, and I’ve been her assistant for the past three, so I feel that the consistency there is sound,” Paul said. “I’m carrying through a lot of things that she’s implemented from the past, whether it be drills, signs and signals, keeping the up-beat tempo and positive energy going.”
Paul is getting help from assistant Hannah Milan, who was with the team last year. The ‘Jacks — defending MAISAD champions — also have a solid core of players returning, Belcher and Beaudin among them.
“I feel like what we bring to practice is what we’re going to get out of games,” Beaudin said. “So it’s important, even though the conditions outside and obviously being in here is not as helpful as we would like to improve, we just have to keep a positive attitude and mindset about it.”
Hitting pop flies off steel beams and collecting errant throws off a half wall might not be the best way to hone softball skills, but it does help harden the players and solidify their camaraderie.
“We actually do get really close as a team because we spend so much time together, and we have all these weird things that we do. Like our runs around the rink are a good bonding time too,” Belcher said.
If practice becomes too fun, though, all it takes is for one player to take their eye off the ball for a split second. Then it only takes another second to wake everybody up.
“Something that kind of just strikes everyone every time is when you miss a throw, or we’re doing infield plays or something, and the ball will hit off the boards,” Beaudin said. “It’s pretty loud, so everyone notices.”
The crash of the ball off the hockey boards was joined by the crack of the bat finally last week, when the team was able to start using the indoor batting cage at one end of Robinson Arena. That means the ‘Jacks are inching closer to breaking out of the rink, depending on how many inches of snow come or go.
But whenever that day comes, the players will certainly be ready.
“I feel like it’s kind of dull and dim in here, and it’s not where we should be playing this sport, but it’s what we have,” Beaudin said. “The first day outside is usually we get the sunflower seeds out, the bubble gum, and we start getting used to the outdoors and the dirt.”
Paul said the team has to follow the strict field-drying protocol that the school’s maintenance department has set before getting onto the diamond. The Lumberjacks are just hoping that day comes before any more game days melt away.
“We like to play our home games, and we like our field, so it would be great if we can get as many games in as we possibly can,” Paul said.
Hebron softball player Eliza Beaudin throws to a teammate inside the school’s hockey rink during Thursday’s practice.Hebron softball player Hadwin Belcher catches a pop fly inside the school’s hockey rink during Thursday’s practice.Hebron softball player Eliza Beaudin catches a pass from a teammate inside the school’s hockey rink during Thursday’s practice.Hebron softball player Eliza Beaudin throws to a teammate inside the school’s hockey rink during Thursday’s practice.