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Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Teams use spring break to focus on season

By Corey Long
Special to ESPNRISE.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Joe Thompson is watching with angst as Urbana (Illinois) trails Montour (Robinson Township, Pa.) 6-5 in the bottom of the seventh inning. His son, Ben, plays baseball for Urbana and this is an official game. As Montour records the final out, Thompson walks away disappointed.

Sure, it's called spring training and it's located in the happiest place on earth, but competition is still competition, and losing still stings parents and players alike.

Meanwhile, baseball players from The Masters School (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.) are patiently awaiting their opportunity to take the diamond, where they will play Jordan (Minn.) High in a "nonofficial" game. The boys' lacrosse team from Masters is here, as well.

"It's great to get the players together for a week where we can focus on baseball and not have to worry about the distractions of home," Masters coach Ray Lacen added. "Our primary goal here is to get in plenty of practice and conditioning for the season."

Even on a rare cloudy, drizzly afternoon here, it's a busy day for spring training at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, the spring training home of the Atlanta Braves. The Braves are on the road, but many of the 250 acres of athletic fields in the complex are occupied by softball, baseball, lacrosse, and track and field programs.

From Feb. 26 to April 27, more than 600 high school programs and 12,000 athletes from 35 different states and Canada are expected to participate in Disney's high school spring training.

Disney baseball
Teams come from across the country to compete during spring break.

Ramapo (Franklin Lakes, N.J.) softball coach Leslie Stephen has experienced spring training as a player and as a coach. The Green Raiders have come to spring training for 10 years. She enjoys another aspect of the experience -- the weather.

"The day after we left, it was 10 degrees and snowing," Stephen said. "It's hard to get in a lot of scrimmages in conditions like that. And the facilities here are amazing."

For Stephen, the experience also gives her the opportunity to focus on coaching the players without the worries of being an administrator. Coaches can tailor their weeks exactly how they want. Spring training can include official games as well as nonofficial games, scrimmages, practices, weight-room training and anything else the coach requests.

Kevin Bowler, a first-year boys' lacrosse coach at Berkshire School (Sheffield, Mass.) is using the week to help him decide who will make the varsity squad for the upcoming season.

"We get to have scrimmages here so we can see the guys in game situations," Bowler said. "We have a game when we get back next Wednesday, so having this practice time and scrimmage time in a more weather-friendly environment will help us. It's also good for the players to become familiar with each other and enjoy some bonding time."

Berkshire will end the week with a game against Boulder (Colo.), and Bowler can see how far his young team has come in a week.

The games are structured just like a game on a local high school field. There are sanctioned umpires and officials, scorekeepers and a public address announcer -- in this case, all provided by the complex. Even the concession stands are open.

Lake Forest
Lake Forest lacrosse is one of the teams that took advantage of the Florida weather.

Emily Moak oversees the program and makes sure that the coaches get exactly what they want. She and her team spend several weeks before the start of spring training putting together the schedule that fits every demand.

"We want every athlete to enjoy the same experience, whether they are with the Atlanta Braves or our amateur athletes," Moak added. "The teams that train with us get the full benefits of everything that Disney has to offer."

The program was started in 1997 and originally began with 25 softball teams and 350 athletes. Baseball was added in 2003, and lacrosse and track soon followed. According to Moak, there are even two soccer programs training at the complex this year, and she expects that number to grow.

The complex continues to grow with the completion of the Jostens Center, a 45,000-square-foot multisport indoor facility that hosted the Disney Volley Classic in late March and will host AAU boys and girls from April until August.

Corey Long is a freelance writer in Florida.