Austin's sports facilities shine at tourney time
Baseball and softball fans have converged over the last few weeks on the field complexes in Austin to enjoy the high school tournaments.
All three classes for Section One softball played their tournaments at Todd Park during the final days of May. There are still a few more games left in town on the baseball side as the post-season section fun concludes this week at the Riverland Complex.
The Austin Parks and Recreation Department has done a fantastic job of getting the fields ready for the myriad of tournament games. Once again this was a chance for the city to show off its beautiful sports facilities for the thousands of folks who journeyed here to watch their favorite players.
With the baseball and softball fields concentrated into one area, the venues in Austin have become the perfect spots for fans to relish in the tournament experience. I don't usually lavish any praise on the Minnesota State High School League officials, but those in power were wise to stage these events in Austin.
North Todd Park complex
Aside from Caswell Park in Mankato, where the annual softball state tournaments are held, the North Todd Park complex is one of the top facilities in the state. Even though some of the games were played across the creek at the South complex, most of the recent tourney activity took place on the North Todd Park fields.
Not only were the fields in top shape for the various games, the grounds crew worked hard to make sure they stayed that way come shine or rain. A couple of weekends ago, I was among the crowd who got to see just how efficient the grounds crew can be in cleaning up a mess.
After the early games were completed on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, the skies darkened and it rained hard for over an hour. As I stood under the roof at the pavilion and watched the water inundate the fields, it didn't seem possible they could still play that day.
Instead of ruining weekend plans by making everybody come back on Monday, the field crew went to work when the rain finally stopped. Within an hour, they had the fields in playing condition and the games continued almost according to schedule.
"There's been some talk among the schools and the MSHSL about moving this tournament to one of the more centrally located towns, but they won't get my vote," Blooming Prairie athletics director John Worke said. "The softball tournaments have been held in Austin for many years and this is where they should stay. After all that rain, they got the field ready to go in only an hour and we played our game. Those folks deserve a lot of praise, it was a great tournament atmosphere."
Bouquet of Blossoms
Of course, Worke and the followers of the Blooming Prairie Blossoms have taken even more of a liking to the North Todd Park complex with a string of section championships over the last three years. The Blossoms are off to state later this week after carting off another section title trophy last Thursday night.
Watching a program like Blooming Prairie softball blossom into a state power is what makes covering high school sports a fulfilling occupation. For years, I watched the Blossoms and their fans walk away disappointed from coming up short at the section tournament.
Then, fortunes began to turn for the girls clad in black. Their beloved football coach Chad Gimbel also ran the softball team and the Blossoms started to make frequent appearances in the section final four. A few years later, Gimbel turned over the reigns of the program to current coach Ali Mach and the Blossoms have become a dynasty.
Especially in the smaller towns, sports are still looked upon as the central focus in terms of community pride. Those loyal fans bring their "school spirit" and their wallets to Austin for these annual tournaments. Coming to the bigger town enhances the tourney experience for the smaller schools and their fans, plus it gets them ready to compete on an even larger stage at state.
Since writing a series of stories a decade ago detailing the construction of the Riverland Complex and it's possible negative effects on the legendary Marcusen Park, some good-natured readers like to chide me about living in the past.
In the end, we got the best of both worlds with the Riverland Complex providing the functional aspect for area baseball teams and Marcusen Park preserved as a kind of shrine to the glorious past. They've been fixing up my favorite old ballpark along the banks of the Cedar River and it's still more aesthetically pleasing for amateur games, but the focus of the local baseball world has now moved to the northwest side of town.
Last year, the baseball tournaments for Section 1A and 1AA were moved from Rochester to the Riverland Complex. Not only does it save me a lot of drive time, but once again the move to Austin has created a better tournament experience for the fans.
There are more fields available and thus, it doesn't take all day to complete a bracket of tournament play. The final rounds of the section will be played later today and possibly tomorrow if needed at the Riverland Complex.
All of the excitement taking place at the local venues over the last few weeks has had a tendency to wear out an old sportswriter and soon, I'll be sitting back along the tree-lined banks watching the ducks fly around by the meandering river.