4 posts categorized "Iowa High School Sports"

June 17, 2011

A wall of their own

Fenway Park has its Green Monster, Wrigley Field its ivy. Old Crosley Field in Cincinnati had a terrace angling up to the outfield wall, which made life interesting -- and sometimes perilous -- for those chasing down fly balls.

Unique touches are part of a ballpark's charm and so it goes with the Martensdale-St. Marys High School diamond in the tiny town of St. Marys, south of Des Moines. When a hitter sends the left fielder back to the wall, you can take that literally. Because part of the left field fence truly is a wall _ the brick wall of an old gym.

There's no longer a school attached to it and it's not even a gym anymore. Now it houses -- get this -- an indoor hitting area. Martensdale-St. Marys may play in Class 1A, the division with the state's smallest schools, but it's strictly big-time when it comes to baseball.

The building's roof rises initially at a modest angle from the top of the wall, then inclines more sharply upward to the peak. A ball that hits off the wall is in play. A ball landing on the roof is a home run. Learning that bit of information took me back to my younger days when I'd stand in the barnyard of my grandparents' farm in western Ohio, toss a ball into the air and try to hit it onto the roof of the barn. Or, if I really got ahold of it (that happened only rarely), over the barn.

The St. Marys diamond, which sits on the east edge of town, doesn't have a barn. But a postcard-perfect white church stands beyond the right field fence, replete with stained glass windows and a tall, elegant steeple. I forgot to ask if a powerful left-handed hitter had ever broken one of those windows.

Naturally -- this being Iowa, after all -- a cornfield borders the ballpark down the left and right field lines. That adds to the challenge of finding foul balls that carry out of the park, but there's always a handful of youngsters eager to tromp through the rows of green stalks to find them.

On a warm summer evening, with the sun dipping behind the church, a baseball fan would be hard pressed to find a more bucolic spot to watch a game. Did I mention the concession stand? Alas, no cheese balls, but bag of popcorn, a hot dog and a large pop costs all of $3.50. Let's see, $3.50 in a major league park would get you, well, it probably wouldn't get you anything.

Topping it off, you get to see one heck of a high school baseball team. On Thursday night, Martensdale-St. Marys routed Winterset 18-3 (it took the Blue Devils only 3 1/3 innings to score all those runs) for its 60th straight victory, which broke the state record held by Lansing Kee, another small-school baseball giant. 

Highlighting the victory: Robert Walker tagged one onto the left field roof, the ball landing with a thump and rolling halfway to the top before tumbling back down. The church, on this night, escaped untouched.

If the Blue Devils win out and claim their second consecutive state championship, their streak could reach into the upper 80s.

Even those diehards at Fenway would be impressed with that.


July 23, 2009

Who'll stop the rain

We had a rain delay at the state softball  tournament in Fort Dodge the other night  but didn't have to postpone any games. Nothing newsworthy in that until you add a little perspective.


Rain has bedeviled the state tournament in recent years. Last year, for instance, heavy downpours washed out 12 games and delayed seven others. I help the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union at this tournament and we had to return to the field on Sunday to finish the Class 4A championship game.


There have been numerous other interruptions, delays and washouts in the last 10 to 15 years -- in stark contrast to the good fortune that blessed the tournament in its early years. The IGHSAU moved it to Fort Dodge in 1970. It's played at Rogers Park, a sparkling complex with several diamonds north of the city.


For those first years in Fort Dodge, I think something like 400-and-some straight games were played without a rainout. It was amazing. Rain could be pummeling Badger, a few miles to the north. It could be raining in Fort Dodge proper. But not a drop fell on Rogers Park. We used to joke that E. Wayne Cooley, then the executive secretary of the IGHSAU, would stand out by the road and, like Moses parting the Red Sea, send half the rain clouds scudding off to the south and the other half to the north.


That kind of luck eventually ran out, of course, and when we did get rain, it sent us into a scramble mode. Writers, broadcasters and IGHSAU staff work at long tables behind the backstops. There’s a nice roof over those areas now, but they were uncovered for years, exposing us to sun, rain and whatever else Mother Nature pulled out of her bag. When the rains came, we’d rush to cover our equipment with towels or gather it all up and head for shelter at the concession stand or in our cars.


We used to write our stories on Tandy TRS-80 laptops -- Trash-80s we called them. These were among the very first notebook computers. They were light, compact and ran forever on batteries. But the screen was tiny and you could read only five or six lines of copy at a time. Still, they were the latest thing. One time I hustled to the car to escape the rain, rested the TRS-80 on the steering wheel and resumed writing. I looked over and Randy Peterson from the Des Moines Register was doing the same in his car.  Sometimes you just have to make do.


When the rain approached this week, all we had to do was call up a weather site on our laptops and check the storm's progress on radar. Not so back in the day. Girls Union officials had to go across the road to the airport to check the radar, return to report their findings and them go back later for an update. Ah, the marvels of technology.


There's a chance of rain on Friday, the last day of the tournament. If it comes, there's not much we can do other than wait it out. We might have to put our equipment away, but chances are we won't have to dash to our cars.


Which is good, because this old horse doesn't dash anymore.


June 24, 2009

Parkersburg suffers again

How much more heartbreak can the good folks of Parkersburg endure?

It was only a year ago that a tornado tore through the area and leveled half the town, including the high school, and killed six people. Now, with the community well on its way to recovery, another tragedy. One of the town's icons, Aplington-Parkersburg High School football coach Ed Thomas, was shot to death in the school's weight room -- by one of his former players.

Stunning. Shocking. Tragic. Senseless. Unimaginable -- everyone grasps for words to explain their emotions when something like this occurs. How could it happen? What would drive someone to do that? And then you think about Ed's family and friends trying to deal with the sudden void in their lives. And about a town that already had suffered too much

I won't claim to have known Ed Thomas. I talked to him several times while working for the AP. I saw his teams play. I watched his son, Aaron, play basketball for Drake. But I picked up enough in those conversations and by talking with those who knew him to learn something about the man.

As a coach, Ed Thomas was a figure straight out of a Clair Bee novel. He was old-school, firm but fair, respected and yes, even loved. He taught his players to respect themselves and their opponents, too. Play hard, knock 'em on their butts, but shake hands and congratulate them on their effort afterward.

There was nothing fancy about his teams. His offense was plain vanilla -- his words, not mine. Ed's idea of the spread was to move an end a couple of yards out from the other linemen. IBlock, tackle and execute and you'll have a pretty good chance of winning. How old-fashioned is that? But it worked to the tune of 292 victories, 19 playoff appearances and two state championships. It had to be frustrating for opponents to have A-P line up and run the same plays time and time again and yet rarely find a way to stop them.

I once did a story on supplement use by high school athletes and called Ed for a comment. He said that when parents asked him about supplements, he'd say they should tell their kids to work hard, exercise and eat the right kind of foods. That was Ed Thomas.

Anyone who follows sports at all knows that Ed's program has produced four NFL players -- an amazing achievement for a school with less than 200 students in the top three grades. Ed was justifiably proud of those guys.  But those who knew him will tell you he was just as proud of his former players who became businessmen, lawyers, ministers, teachers, coaches and good fathers.

Ed's home was among those destroyed in that May 2008 tornado. He was one of the leaders in the effort to rebuild the town. He was insistent that the debris-littered football field would be ready for the season opener in September -- a field that carries his name -- and it was.

The night of that first game, a choked up Ed Thomas told the crowd, ``There's no question in my mind we will be a better school and a better community than we ever were before.''

Ed certainly did his part to make the community better. Sadly, though, his death leaves it a little emptier.

May 20, 2009

Remembering a track guru

What I'm about to relate happened years ago and I don't remember exactly where, though it probably was Drake Stadium because it had to do with track. Anyway, the guy who said this wasn't a big track fan and I still remember the joke he made about his indifference.

``You know,'' he said, ``the only thing more boring than track is field.''

I don't remember who said it, but I do know this: It wasn't Mike Henderson.

Henderson was the information director for the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union who died in 2004, taking with him to a better place a vast storehouse of names, numbers, places and events. His razor-sharp recall worked for all sports, but track was his first love. With the state high school meet getting under way Thursday, this seems a good time to talk about Mike for a minute.

Mike's involvement with track went far beyond his job with the Girls Union. He worked at meets around the country. He was a key figure in getting the Drake Relays up and running each year, so important that Drake always found him a place to work on campus in the weeks leading up to the meet. Former Relays director Bob Ehrhart looked to Mike as his guiding hand  in selecting athletes for the invitational events. When Mike spoke, the Drake folks listened.

When I needed to talk to him the week of  the state meet to figure out what might happen, I always could find him on the second floor of the Drake Stadium press box, surrounded by paper, empty cups and food containers. Mike was not the neatest guy around (I can just see those of you who knew him smiling at that memory).  If you looked up ``unkempt'' in the dictionary, you'd probably find Mike's picture. But his mind was as neatly organized as the most sophisticated Excel file. If I had just a fraction of Mike's knowledge of track (and field, too), I'd consider myself an expert.

The next week, Mike would be working away in the press box to get ready for the boys meet and I'd climb those steps again to get his take on that event. The Girls Union was good about sharing Mike because they understood that when you have a treasure, you need to let others benefit from him, too. When a meet was going on and Mike was there, you just knew things would be fine. Now, if problems came up or things got a little tense, it's known that Mike would utter an occasional swear word, maybe even string a few together. But he'd always get everything sorted out and keep working as if nothing had happened. ``Oh, Chuck, I didn't see you there. What do you need?''

The state meet didn't go coed until after Mike died. I'm not quite sure what he would have thought of that. On one hand, he would have enjoyed three straight days of track, including a couple that stretch to nearly 12 hours. But when the meets were separate, he got two weekends of track instead of just one, so there was always something to be said for that.

Since Mike's been gone, everyone at the meet has had to work a little harder. Before, all we had to do was ask Mike. Now, we have to look all that darn stuff up.