With the goal of another MWC South championship in mind, the Prairie Fire have only been able to vicariously take the diamond. Subzero temperatures and consistent accumulation of snow has resigned the baseball team to the confines of the T. Fleming Fieldhouse, where the Prairie Fire have been forced to split the four tennis courts with the softball team, who are also inside due to the inclement weather.
Senior Peter Marquardt, who anchored the Knox pitching staff last year with a team-leading 49 innings pitched and 36 strikeouts, was quick to point out defense as the predominant difficulty of the situation, saying, “The biggest problem with indoor practice is the fact that our outfielders aren’t able to get any real fly balls. They’ve been practicing their reads with tennis balls, which is nothing like a game situation. They’re just not ready quite yet.”
It would be easy for the novelty and fresh confidence associated with the nascent season to dwindle, but Marquardt remains optimistic. “Despite all we’ve had to put up with, I feel like our team is still very well prepared for our upcoming game as well as our Florida trip,” he said. “We’ve been really getting after it in practice every day, getting the necessary work in to assure we’re ready. Although we can’t go outside, we’ve still been coming into practice with the mindset of getting better every single day, and I definitely think we’re succeeding at that.”
While indoor and outdoor practices share a common structure, one of the larger challenges of indoor practice is the inability to experience the game-like feel that outdoor practices have, an issue that has required some serious innovation on the part of the coaching staff. To compensate, the team has been running more scrimmage-oriented drills and games, such as a nine-man bunt drill, having pitchers throw to hitters off the mound in a cage so as hitters can get looks and swings off live pitching, or even full-blown scrimmages (which prove very difficult given space constraints and shared time of the fieldhouse with the softball team).
Despite the challenges of indoor work, senior Michael O’Connell maintains that the coaching staff has kept the Prairie Fire with the right mindset, saying “We know that we can’t do anything about [indoor practice], but we also know that it can’t be a distraction and can’t stop us from working hard … as a team, we have a number of players who take more time out of their own day to go lift or hit on their own to prepare themselves for games, which acts as a huge motivator for the entire team.”
The pressure has ramped up on Knox after their record-setting 22-win season, earning the program a stigma of success and high expectations for the upcoming year.
The Prairie Fire were predicted to win the MWC South in a coach’s poll, and they’re certainly preparing like they’re going to take home some hardware. Their first game of the year comes on Tuesday at MacMurray College, and given the forecast it seems unlikely they’ll be able to hit the field too much before then.
They’re lucky enough, however, to bring back a wealth of veteran experience to guide the young guys through the first few games. While the first game that matters for conference play isn’t until early April, it’s imperative that Knox gets off to a strong start to silence the snapping at their ankles from the four teams below them in the South, all of whom are surely anxious to take down the team on top.