By Mina Johnson
According to Punxsutawney Phil the Groundhog, we should be expecting an early spring. However, those of us in Geneseo have experienced far too many treacherous winters to be hopeful that spring is just around the corner.
Regardless of the weather, our sports programs will find a way to practice and prepare for their seasons. A number of our winter and spring teams have the opportunity to escape the snow and ice and head south.
Our swimming & diving teams have traveled to Puerto Rico for the last two seasons during winter break, while men's lacrosse, softball and tennis frequent the sunshine state of Florida in March for spring break.
There are countless benefits that come with training, practicing and competing in a warmer climate, but when it's all said and done, the coaches and student-athletes agree that the one benefit that outweighs the rest is the ability to practice outside in the nice weather.
Prior to the opening of Geneseo's College Stadium, the spring teams were confined to practicing in Kuhl Gymnasium, and usually at odd hours of the evening. Preparing in the gym is limiting, especially for lacrosse and softball that involve long passes or throws and quick movements.
"During my time here, the major benefit of going to Florida has been the ability to get outside," said men's lacrosse head coach Jim Lyons. "Before our stadium, we were landlocked and were lucky to get outside even 10 times for the whole year. Practicing in Florida allows us to do things on a full-field that you just can't do in the gym."
Lyons added that practicing in the gym also affects the team's playing style, which doesn't necessarily align with how the game of lacrosse is known to be played.
"You need consistency to improve ball skills and passing skills. Everything you do inside just gets condensed so when you get outside you have a tendency to rely on those same principles. We've had to slow it down and be detail oriented as opposed to free flowing and fast paced. Now, just being outside for the last two weeks in our new College Stadium I can tell you it makes all the difference in the world."
The men's lacrosse team trained at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex last season and will be at the University of Tampa this year, with a match-up vs. Clarkson in the mix (March 16). These facilities in Florida allow the team to practice without any of the restrictions they may run into in Geneseo.
"The facilities and weather in Florida afford us the opportunity to run long, productive practices in a comfortable environment that we are unable to find here in Upstate New York," said senior midfielder Brad Willows.
The trip is exactly what the team needs this time of year.
"It allows us to 'escape' the cold weather and is a change in scenery at a point of the season where it is sorely needed. It breaks up our schedule and reinvigorates the team," Willows added.
The softball and women's tennis teams also struggle to find adequate practice time outside, limiting their ability to simulate game-like situations.
"Since we constantly battle snow in our area, going to Florida for training gives us the opportunity to actually play on grass prior to the first game of our season," said softball head coach Dave Sylvester.
Senior second baseman Courtney Budynas stated the trip is the perfect way to kick-off the season after weeks of practicing indoors.
"It is something we always look forward to after all of our practices in the gym. We don't always have the nicest weather in Geneseo so my teammates and I look forward to the warmer weather and being able to play the game we all love."
"The team looks forward to the spring break trip every year. In the past, we have gone to both Florida and Puerto Rico," adds women's tennis senior Marylen Santos. "It's definitely nice to be able to escape the cold weather."
While the swimming & diving teams don't necessarily have to worry about the weather affecting their practice time or space, the student-athletes still reap many benefits from training in Puerto Rico. The squads train in a longer pool, which comes with physical benefits, and have the time to fit in two practice sessions a day.
"Training in a long course (50-meter) pool allows for more continuous swimming (less turns), which is preferable for aerobic development and for drills, which can be done over longer distances without breaks," said swimming & diving head coach Paul Dotterweich.
Training during winter break, or intermission, is the most demanding portion of the season for the men's and women's swimming & diving teams. They practice twice a day almost every day so not only do the athletes benefit athletically from being in nice weather, but the warmth helps psychologically as well.
"Intersession training is very difficult, the most difficult and strenuous training we do all year," said Dotterweich. "This time of year is a real grind so being able to go to the beach on a sunny and 85-degree day between practices definitely keeps the moral high (much higher than freezing while walking through the snow between workouts)."
Swimming & Diving senior Kala Wilkins reiterates that being away from the everyday stresses that come with school work and their studies, really helps the team concentrate and be in a good state mentally.
"With such a long season, it provides us an opportunity to refresh and refocus in a warm and positive environment. Without the everyday distractions of school and homework, this trip gives everyone the opportunity to focus solely on swimming and bettering themselves as athletes. Although it is the toughest training of the year, with this change of scenery and positive energy, it is easy for the team to keep each other encouraged and motivated."
While men's lacrosse and swimming & diving concentrate primarily on training during their trips, softball and women's tennis schedule look to schedule a number of games. In addition to enjoying the warmer weather, both teams will face tough competition to prepare them for the remainder of the season.
"The competition is some of the best we'll see," said Sylvester. "We always play a top schedule in Florida to challenge ourselves and make us better. Last year, we played six of the top 20 teams in the nation."
Softball plays 10 games over six days during their trip. This coming break, the Knights returns to Clermont, Florida, playing in games from March 13th through 18th with Wednesday the 16th serving as their day off.
"The teams we face really challenge us and allow us to see everything we need to work on in tough game situations prior to our regular season play," added Budynas. "We play a lot of games in a little amount of time, which helps us to get used to game play and in shape for the season."
The women's tennis season is unique in that in order to avoid match cancellations due to winter weather, the State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC) holds its season in the fall while the NCAAs are played in the spring. With such a large gap, the team likes to get in two to three matches during spring break to help get back into a rhythm.
This spring break, the squad has a match against Connecticut College (March 14) and Wisconsin-La Crosse (March 15).
"Spring break really gives us an opportunity to compete against top schools that we normally wouldn't be able to play during our regular season," said Santos. "Because we have such a long break between our fall and spring season, the trip allows us to focus on our strengths and weaknesses."
While the coaches and student-athletes agree that the teams benefit tremendously from the warmer weather and practicing outside, there's also a consensus that these winter and spring break trips greatly enhances the student-athlete experience. After the two-a-days or doubleheaders, the teams get to have some fun and form closer bonds with one another.
"Spending a week in Florida with my teammates has been incredibly fun and worthwhile," said Willows. "Overall, the trip brings us together as a team and creates unforgettable memories and bonding experiences that help us to overcome any sort of slump we may be in."
Budynas agrees that the softball team's spring break trip really allows the players to learn about one another on and off the field and how they can best use their individual traits to come together as a whole.
"It's just an amazing opportunity to spend time with the team and really learn about who we are. We spend an entire week living together, practicing together and learning how to play together, which is extremely important for us to succeed."
Santos recalls the most memorable aspect of the trip is staying in on their final night in Florida and just enjoying each other's company.
"On the last night of our trip, instead of going out to a restaurant, the team breaks into smaller groups, we each cook a dish and then have a home-cooked dinner together."
Overall, these trips provide the student-athletes with time to unwind from the hustle and bustle of campus life.
"Between workouts we spend a lot of time on the beach and by the hotel pool. This is an awesome way to relax after a tough practice," said Wilkins. "On our day off, we find something fun to do in Puerto Rico. This year, we planned a rainforest excursion and hiked to a waterfall. These trips are a great way to bond with the team outside of the pool in a fun environment."
Spending a whole week together isn't just beneficial for the student-athletes, it's also a time for the coaches to gain a better understanding of their players. The quality time each team has together is invaluable and essential to building team chemistry.
"We're flying together, taking the bus together, eating all of our meals together, going to an amusement park together and this allows us coaches to break down some barriers, especially in terms of communication," said Lyons. "Our players get to know us more and vice versa, which in the long run will help us to better serve their needs."
Sylvester echoes the point that being together almost all hours of the day bonds his players and coaches, "You can't be in such close proximity with each other and not develop a sense of family and commitment to one another."
Dotterweich appreciates any opportunity to further enrich his student-athletes' lives. His programs' winter trips expose many of his swimmers to things they've likely never experienced before or may not get the chance to experience in their lifetime.
"One of my goals as a coach is to provide an experience that enriches the student's life and makes all the hard work worth it. I am not sure if any of our athletes had been to Puerto Rico before, let alone visited a rainforest and swam under a waterfall. These are memories they will have forever."
Following a week of training, practices and stiff competition, the programs return to campus ready to tackle the remainder of their seasons. Sylvester added that while they may not always leave Florida with a winning record, they leave knowing what needs to be done to make a postseason run.
"The trip sets a standard for how good we really need to be and allows us to see the work that must be done. While we may come out of it with a sub-.500 record, we have advanced deep into the playoffs over the last three years, coming up just one game shy of an NCAA Tournament appearance."
The games that the softball team plays in Florida exposes the team to most, if not all, of circumstances they may find themselves in come the conference tournament.
"Our games prepare us for the challenges the season and SUNYACs may bring," said Budynas. "We learn how to come back from tough games early on, which usually pays off at the end of the season when we need to win in order to advance."
As the coaches' and student-athletes' attention begin to shift towards the SUNYAC and NCAA Championships, they have an extra boost of confidence because these trips have elevated them on multiple levels.
"Our winter break trip gives everyone confidence in their training and ability to perform," said Wilkins. "With this momentum, we always go into SUNYACs motivated and excited."
When it's all said and done, a trip to Florida during the wintertime can't be beat and both the coaches and student-athletes benefit from their experiences in more ways than one.
"Regardless of if we win or lose our game down in Florida, we will still come out of the trip just feeling better about ourselves," said Lyons. "It's Florida in March. It's gorgeous and absolutely beautiful. The weight of a long winter, and again we've had some incredibly long winters, kind of melts away and the players just feel better."