Less practice time creates concern as baseball season starts

February 23, 2010 10:21:00 AM

Adam Minichino - [email protected]


Brandon Johnson didn’t have a busy Saturday at the Columbus High School baseball jamboree. 


He’d like to hope the rest of the season will be as uneventful, but he knows better. 


The start of another baseball season has Johnson concerned he might be right. 


The decision by the Mississippi High School Activities Association to push the start of baseball practice back to Feb. 8 has Johnson and area coaches concerned that the lack of time to prepare for the first regular-season games later this week could lead to an increase in injuries, especially to pitchers. 


“I could see problems coming from arms,” said Johnson, a certified athletic trainer who works at Rehab at Work, a physical therapy clinic in Columbus. “I see a potential for an increase in arm trouble. You have got to have that time to get ready.” 


Typically, baseball teams have had more than a month’s worth of official practice time to get ready for a new season. But this is the first season MHSAA teams have a little more than two weeks before they can play their first games of the season. 


“It’s killing us,” Hamilton High School coach Lewis Earnest said. “We haven’t had near the at-bats that most people have had. Most people have been hitting since football season was over. We didn’t get to start until Feb. 8. They get a few cuts on their own around the cage, but they’re not getting coaching. It definitely is a disadvantage early in the season for us. We don’t get nearly the reps everyone else gets.” 


Earnest was in favor of moving the start of practice back some, but not as far as it was pushed. He said Martin Luther King Day, or Jan. 18, would have been a better start day for the state’s public schools to start practice. Most of the state’s public schools benefit from having a seventh-period athletic period. Of the five local teams that participated Saturday at the Columbus High’s jamboree, Caledonia, Columbus, New Hope, and West Point all have a seventh-period athletic period, which enables coaches to work with players. 


Hamilton, which is in the Monroe County School District with Hatley and Smithville, doesn’t have a seventh-period athletic period, which could further complicate matters for Earnest and his baseball team. 


“If we were all on an equal playing field, and all had the same amount of time to practice, I would be fine with this, but we’re not,” Earnest said. “It hurts us.” 


Earnest said he has asked the Monroe County School Board two years in a row to consider allowing the schools in the district to have their seventh period each day be an athletic period. He said the idea “ did not fly.” 


“I won’t comment any further on that,” Earnest said. 


Earnest said Saturday was the second time his team had seen live pitching since the start of practice Feb. 8. He said his team is “handicapped” and is “trying to play catch up” with the start of the regular season later this week. He said he will have to handle his pitchers differently this season and, possibly, limit them to pitch counts.  


Earnest said he has had to count on pitchers throwing on their own so they were in some kind of shape for the start of practice. He said all of his pitchers didn’t do that, but he hopes his primary pitchers did plenty of work prior to the start of practice. 


“We can’t go into with the same approach we have in the past, throwing as many pitches early in the year,” Earnest said. “We have to nurse them along now. Heck, you’re halfway through the season, or just about that, before you can open them up and throw.” 


Johnson assists athletes at Hamilton, New Hope, West Lowndes, Columbus, Caledonia, and Noxubee County high schools and Heritage Academy. He also works at Immanuel Christian if their athletes need an athletic trainer. He said the state’s athletic trainers association recently sent out an e-mail instructing trainers to monitor and to chart the rate of arm and shoulder injuries.  


Johnson plans to chart the number of injuries this season in an attempt to show that baseball teams need more time to prepare for the start of the season. Like all of the other coaches, he hopes he doesn’t have to deal with a rash of injuries, but he said the odds of it happening are high. 


“We have seen a huge decrease in shoulder trouble and arm trouble over the last couple of years,” Johnson said. “In the past, we could get aggressive with it because when they started throwing in January and they had trouble throwing, we’re still not playing until the middle of February, so we can shut them down for a week or two and let their arm calm down and try to be pro-active with it. 


“Now we need to go to the doctor to get aggressive with you. That extra month is going to hurt. You had 10 school days between the start of practice and (the jamboree). That is not enough time to get ready.” 


New Hope coach Lee Boyd said his players have been working together since August. He said it will be tough to get everyone in shape in two weeks and that he feels his team is a little behind, especially swinging the bat. 


“The Feb. 8 start date is not what bothers me,” Boyd said. “I think you really need another week to prepare your kids.” 


Boyd said he and his players have benefited from the seventh-period athletic period. He said his players have lifted weights and worked on long-toss programs to stay in shape. He feels the seventh-period athletic period is a motivator because the players know they don’t have as much time to prepare so they need to be focused each day to put in their work to get ready. 


West Point High coach Buddy Wyers said the seventh-period athletic period has helped his team prepare for the season. He hopes the new start date won’t cause more injuries for pitchers, but he said the possibility is there given the start date this season. 


“The jamboree (at Columbus High) helps, but the biggest thing is working with pitchers,” Wyers said. “Not everybody has an athletic period. If you have a 50-minute athletic period up until that day, by the time the kids get there and get changed, you have 35-40 minutes. When you’re lifting three days a week, it is hard to get pitchers, and arms in general, in shape. Pitchers on average every three to four days, so it is tough.” 


Wyers liked the fact that the MHSAA pushed back the dates when the first games can be played. But he doesn’t understand the thought behind pushing the start of practice back. He said the state has done it this way before and there have been problems.  


“If I was trying to make a decision, I would put it at about Martin Luther King Day,” Wyers said. “When you come back Jan. 3 or Jan. 4, you can get some things done, but you’re not going to get much done outside because it is going to be entirely too cold. Even if you try to go outside, you’re not going to get too much accomplished.” 


Wyers said his school district’s liability issues prevent student-athletes from using the school’s athletic facilities without a certified school employee. He also said the lack of playable fields makes it even more difficult for players to find places to work out before the start of the season. 


Wyers said each team’s coach will have the final say as to how many innings pitchers throw. He plans to take his time in working his pitchers deeper into ballgames. 


“If they haven’t progressed based on time where they need to be, you just have to progressing them on the scale you think they should be,” Wyers said. “If you stretch it too much, somebody is going to get hurt.” 


Wyers said earlier this month he and Starkville High baseball coach Danny Carlisle attended a MHSAA board of directors and executive committee meeting in Jackson. He said it was voted on at the meeting to increase the number of playoff teams from two this season to three next season. He said it also was voted on to start football practice for the 2010-11 season earlier. He said the reasoning behind the vote was sports medicine practitioners told the committee that football players need more time to adjust to the heat, so the

Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.