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The pitcher's mound at Haaland Field is encircled by snow. With a condensed schedule looming because of the extended winter weather, high school pitching staffs will be put to the test this season.

TOM STROMME, TRIBUNE

 Here we have a level playing field. Maybe the ultimate level playing field.

 High school athletic teams — Class A and Class B, boys and girls, varsity and sub-varsity from near and far across North Dakota — are cooped up inside waiting. And waiting and waiting some more.

 "Everybody is in the same shape right now. ... Nobody's got an advantage," Century high school baseball coach Kent Schweigert said as he assessed the impact of a late-arriving spring.

 With February-like conditions widespread, Bismarck baseball coach Jim Patton said there aren't any schools that can depend on geography or facilities to give them an edge.

 "I don't think there will be an incredible imbalance. ... When one team gets outside we'll probably all get outside," he said.

 Even-steven. No high school baseball has been played yet, and there's nothing in the offing. Most schools haven't even managed one open-air practice.

 "We were outside one day when we practiced on the (artificial) turf at the Starion Sports Complex," Mandan baseball coach Dewitt Mack said.

 That's one more day than Patton or Schweigert have enjoyed.

 "The closest we came was shoveling snow off the infield at the Clem (Kelley softball diamond complex)," Patton said.

 The West Region baseball teams were to have begun play on Tuesday, but all they have to show for their optimism thus far is no runs, no hits, no errors, eight postponements and 11 cancellations.

  Even in their optimistic moments, Mack, Schweigert and Patton don't expect to be playing baseball in the near term.

 "The best-case scenario, I would say, is the end of the week of (April) 23rd," Patton said. "We're scheduled to go to Fargo on the 27th, and if that was the first time we played I'd be fairly surprised." 

  Schweigert chuckled when asked if he could project an opening date. Instead, he offered only a wish. 

"I really have no idea," he said. "I wish we could play by the end of next week, but I don't know. The temperature just hasn't warmed up. Nothing is melting, nothing is drying, and I think we have some frost to get out of the ground yet."

  Mack, too, shied away from making any predictions.

 "Hopefully, it will get really nice next week. Then, possibly Friday or Saturday. That would be the earliest," Mack observed.

 One thing working to the advantage of the baseball teams is the West Region's revised scheduling format.

 This spring, instead of playing every conference team home-and-home for 32 regional games, the region has gone to a 16-game format. Most regional teams will play two doubleheaders with each of the other eight schools. But only one of the twin bills, with two seven-inning games, will count in the standings.

 That gives schools the option of transferring a postponed regional date to a later non-regional date with the same team.

 Patton believes that option is available for the bulk of the West Region schedule.

 "Over half the schools are playing everybody twice, with the exception of St. Mary's and Jamestown," Patton said. "There's not a mandatory number of games we have to play except for the mandatory 16 regional games."

While there are no worries at this point about getting in all of the regional contests, there is a concern about what a backlog of games might do to a team's pitching plans. With an 85-pitch limit, coaches may have to dip deeper into their pitching staffs than they'd prefer.

 "That can put a lot of stress on a pitching staff, no doubt about it,"Schweigert said. "I think we've got some arms that are capable, but we probably won't be able to get a look at a whole bunch of them early on. ... We've got to kind of rush (the pitchers) along rather than easing them into it, and you have the safety standard you have to take into account. That's where the pitch count comes in."

 Mack agreed that there will probably be more pitchers getting decisions this spring than in a normal year.

 "We'll have to go deeper (into the pitching staff) than we normally would. Kids who normally get non-conference games are going to have to pitch conference games," he noted. 

 "I don't know if most teams have the pitching to go more than three times a week," Mack added. "I know we'd be struggling, but some of the bigger schools might have more arms available."

As the games back up, Patton says there are going to be weeks where it would be nice if the batboy could throw an inning or two.

 "Inevitably we're going to run into situations where we'll be playing six games in four days or eight games in five days," he observed. "With the pitch count limitation we're going to need arms. A guy who you planned to use for a spot start in the tough part of the schedule may become part of your regular rotation."

 The coaches agreed there are limits to what a baseball team can accomplish indoors, especially when it's sharing space with other athletic teams that are cooped up by inclement weather. At the forefront, according to Schweigert and Patton, is the absence of long toss for the pitchers.

 "One of the problems of not being outside is you can't do any long toss so the kids can build arm strength, especially the pitchers," Schweigert said. "That's what's really missing right now."

 For Patton it's the same chapter, different verse.

 "We can throw a lot of bullpens inside to get the pitchers ready so they're capable of reaching the 85-pitch limit, but we can't play long toss," Patton said.  "That goes a long way toward building arm strength over an extended period of time."

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Sports Reporter