HOUGHTON - For one day at least, the sun was shining, the breeze gentle and Copper Country athletes were able to enjoy a game outdoors.
The Houghton and the first-year Hancock softball teams met Wednesday at Houghton's field in a sign that spring may finally be here. The final score of each game reflected the vast experience difference between the two programs - the Gremlins swept 19-3 and 27-0 in run-rule ended contests - but the ability to actually play a game outside far outweighed the result.
For Houghton (3-6), it was only the second day they had even been able to practice on their home field. For the Bulldogs, it was the first time outside all season.
Houghton’s Anna Gaffney lays down a bunt on the run during the second game of a doubleheader against Hancock at Bugni Field in Houghton. The Gremlins swept both games. (DMG photo by Michael Bleach)
Houghton runner Colleen Toorongian is tagged out at the plate in the third inning of the second game by Hancock catcher MacKenzie Brunet. (DMG photo by Michael Bleach)
Just feeling dirt under the cleats instead of a gym floor made the experience worth it for both sides.
"Oh yeah. Big time," Houghton pitcher Laura Ruohonen, who started and completed the second leg, said. "It is so nice to be outside."
"We have spent eight weeks indoors, so it is great to be outside," Houghton coach Melissa Grego added. "It is nice to see groundballs in dirt not bouncing on the gym floor."
While the final results were never really in doubt - Hancock has had a softball program for all of one month now, after all - both teams were able to treat the doubleheader as a litmus test of sorts, to provide some direction for what needs refinement over the rest of the season.
The Bulldogs gained some much-needed exposure to actual game conditions, giving a clearer picture to what their coaches have been preaching for the last four weeks, while a young Houghton team was given a sharp mental test defensively in a game where the pace lagged due to the lopsided scoring.
"We have only been practicing for about a month, so it is great to get a game in so we can kind of show them what needs to be done," Hancock assistant coach Kelsae Eliszewski said. "We have some girls who have never played before and now they know what to expect.
"Practice is mostly working on fundamentals in the gym. It will take some time, but they will get it. They can see better now what we want from them."
For Grego, an occasional lack of mental focus was highlighted once again, as her team missed on some base-running signs and made some defensive errors in game one.
With 14 games left in the season, a clear path has been laid out for what to work on.
"We are a very young team, and we definitely need to work on our mental toughness," Grego said. "We played Negaunee (Tuesday) and we had some mental errors that we need to move forward from. It needs to be clean plays, not bobbling the ball. We have some good athletes on this team, but they need to get mentally tough and confident that they can do it."
And while the rivalry got off to an inauspicious start, just the actuality of a local opponent will be encouraging for the future of local softball.
"It will be so nice (playing Hancock). Them only traveling 10 minutes is unheard of," Grego said. "There have been rumors that Calumet is getting a team too, and that would also be great."