SHELBY — As they sat in the fieldhouse on the campus of Shelby High School waiting out a wild thunderstorm that passed through, Shelby coach Samantha Martin and Madison coach Tim Niswander gave it about a 0% chance their Saturday afternoon nonconference softball game would resume.
About 30 minutes before, the Rams and Whippets were locked in a tight one in the third inning with Shelby leading 4-2 before a lightning strike in the distance forced both teams to retreat to the fieldhouse. Moments later, the skies opened up and dumped buckets upon buckets of rain all across Richland County and especially at Shelby High School.
Hanging out in the fieldhouse, no one expected to resume the game, so, they decided to have the postgame meal a little early.
"My assistant coach, Scott Gurney, just suggested we have them eat because there was no way we were going to continue so we fed both teams and just waited out the rain so we could go pack up and get out of here," Martin said. "Then, we walked the field and there were a few wet spots, but nothing that would prevent us from finishing, so we finished. It's pretty remarkable."
Last year, there would have been no chance the game would resume, but this year is different. As part of a $4 million Whippet Athletic Complex project, the softball field, along with baseball and football, was equipped with an all-artificial turf infield that is putting the Whippets ahead of the curve when it comes to battling Mother Nature in the spring.
The baseball turf ended up coasting around $272,000 with softball coming in around $210,000. Those numbers seem like a lot to spend on a baseball and softball field for non-revenue sports, but when you start factoring in the money saved on things like lining the field, field dry to get the infield dirt dry enough to play and overall maintenance, the turf ends up paying for itself and then some as it is predicted to last more than 15 years.
And when it comes to giving kids an opportunity to represent themselves, their school and their team, it seems like a very small price to pay.
The Whippets and Rams ended up resuming the game with Madison winning 12-5, but the real winners were the players who got the opportunity to play the game despite the treacherous rainstorm less than an hour earlier.
Niswander, who had to approach Shelby about moving the game from Madison to Shelby on Saturday because the natural-grass field at Madison was unplayable, has had multiple conversations about what it would take to put turf down on his home field. During the early part of the season, he has his team practice on the turf football field at Madison High School just to get some work in outside.
"We have talked about it a lot over the last week with all of the rain," Niswander said. "The expense of it is obviously a big deal and we have a levy on the ballot with will be our first and foremost focus. But we get to practice on the turf a lot when we go out on the football field. We have only been on our actual field three times and once was to play an actual game. We are used to being on the turf and it really is a game-changer. You will be able to get more games in. I don't know if any other games were played other than us. It rained, rained some more and then rained some more and here we are, just finishing up a game because we played on turf."
The Shelby Whippets are 3-1 on the season as their lone loss came to Madison on Saturday. They have played more games than any other Richland County school with three of those games happening at home. Originally, Saturday was supposed to be a doubleheader at Madison before the game was moved to Shelby due to field conditions at Madison. And Game 2 would have happened if it hadn't been for the 50-mile-per-hour winds and a 20-degree drop in temperature along with the threat of another round of storms moving into the area around the start of Game 2.
While the turf allows for Shelby to get games in during times when most schools would have to cancel, Martin admits the real advantage of having turf came during the preseason.
"It is a game changer not only for getting games in but for practice as well," Martin said. "I cannot tell you the last time we got so many reps outside. We joked at the beginning of the season that our fielding was going to be really good and our bats not so much because we were outside so much. In previous years, we were always in the batting cage and not outside because the field was too wet to practice on. But now, we get on the field on a daily basis."
Most Ohio schools see their baseball and softball teams practicing indoors during the preseason with a lot of batting cage work. But the Whippets were out on the turf nearly every day taking fly balls and working on live-game situations, something they wouldn't have been able to do last year on a natural surface.
"It is an advantage for our outfielders because they used to not get a big of reps when we had to stay indoors," Martin said. "Now, they get to see balls in the air daily and they get that work in which makes a huge difference."
Over on the baseball field, the Whippets were scheduled to host Medina Buckeye, but the rain storm caused some flooding in short left field and forced the Whippets to postpone. Yet, after the postponement, several pitchers took to the mound to get a bullpen session in. Had it not been for the turf infield, they wouldn't have been able to get that extra work in to prepare for a run at a Mid-Ohio Athletic Conference championship.
And had it not been for a little bit of standing water in left field, the Whippets could have easily played the scheduled doubleheader because the infield turf was in immaculate shape to play a game on.
And that is how both fields will be moving forward. The project is far from complete. The softball field is trying to grow grass around the infield collar where the turf meets the outfield and the baseball field has to address the leftfield issue along with figuring out some natural wind barriers, but all of that will come with time.
For now, Shelby will be more than happy to host games after storms.
"It gets us more home games, too," Martin said. "If we had bad weather the night before, we are always ready to host because the turf allows us to not have to worry about a muddy infield. That is a huge advantage for us because any time you play at home, you have a different comfort level. We absolutely love the turf and are incredibly grateful.
"I was worried that the turf may put us at a disadvantage at away games on natural grass, but so far, we have played better on the road. But the turf really is a game-changer. The girls love it and it is something they take pride in because it is a beautiful facility that they can be proud of."
It is a facility to be proud of as the only all-turf infield in Richland County, Madison baseball has turf on the pitcher's mound and around home plate only. When it comes to the postseason, Shelby usually hosts Division III baseball and Division IV softball tournaments, the school will be ready to host in anything with its turf. It will combat any weather scenario thrown its way and allow for tournament games to be played and avoid scheduling conflicts due to postponements.
And hopefully, Shelby will set a precedence for other schools to follow as the continued battle between Mother Nature and high school spring sports in Ohio rages on.
It looks like Shelby is winning that battle.
This article originally appeared on Mansfield News Journal: Shelby Whippets softball, baseball turf beating Mother Nature