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Lazerus: Steel Yard high school games becoming a challenge to maintain.

Jeffrey D. Nicholls/Post-Tribune

Mark Lazerus Post-Tribune sports editor

Jeffrey D. Nicholls/Post-Tribune Mark Lazerus Post-Tribune sports editor

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Updated: May 21, 2012 8:59AM



In April of 2007, every single IHSAA baseball team in Lake and Porter counties had a game scheduled at the Steel Yard as part of the RailCats High School Challenge.

This year, 14 do.

In April of 2006, 26 high school games were played at the Steel Yard.

This year, 12 will.

As a result, what was once a full-blown Big Deal — a chance for kids to play in a professional stadium, and a chance for weaker programs to have their moment in the sun (and in the paper) — is now little more than an afterthought.

Last Friday, a pair of Illinois schools — T.F. North and T.F. South — played a game, followed by Knox vs. North Judson.

Forgive the region for not noticing.

The biggest reason for the drop-off is — take a wild guess — money. It used to cost a team $250 to play a game at the Steel Yard. Last year, the price was doubled.

Five-hundred bucks might not seem like a lot to a football team, but it’s serious scratch to a baseball team.

“It’s just too much money,” said Portage coach Tim Pirowski, whose Indians are not playing in the Challenge this year for the first time. “It’s great for the kids, but baseball doesn’t get too much in terms of athletics. So 500 bucks for us — that’s a couple bags of clay, some extra baseballs, that’s a lot.”

It’s not that Pirowski doesn’t appreciate the value of playing at the Steel Yard — he jumped through numerous hoops to make sure his guys got to play against Clark last year, a game that was postponed by bad weather multiple times.

It’s just that he values a new bat or two — tangible things that will help his team in the long run — more.

The void left by most region teams — 22 of 36 IHSAA teams in Lake and Porter counties are skipping this year’s Challenge — has been filled by the likes of Hammond Academy, Victory Christian and Chicago Christian.

Griffith — which plays Chesterton on Saturday in one of just two relatively high-profile games on the schedule — is likely to be in as long as the Challenge exists. For one thing, the team’s booster club is footing the bill. For another, Panthers coach Brian Jennings is big on these sorts of experiences for his players.

The Panthers do an overnight trip every year; this year’s is to Wapahani. Last year, Jennings took his team to Indiana State, and the year before that, the Panthers played in Fifth Third Ballpark in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“At the end of the day, it’s not often you get to play on a minor-league field,” Jennings said.

But fewer teams are getting the opportunity. And given the wear and tear on the Steel Yard’s playing surface each year — the Challenge usually starts before the grounds crew has had a chance to even start working on the field, and it usually drags on until mere days before the RailCats’ opener — it’s tough to blame the club for wanting to thin out the high school schedule a bit.

“It took a beating a few years ago, I remember,” Jennings said. “That might be part of the reason they raised the price, they wanted to be careful with the field.”

Well, here’s hoping the RailCats and region high schools can come up with a way to make everyone happy, and get everyone back on the Steel Yard field again. It’s too special for the kids to let a couple hundred bucks or a torn-up outfield get in the way.

LC pulls rank: High school polls are silly. We all know this. To think that someone in Evansville knows enough about Fort Wayne, or that someone in the region knows enough about Indianapolis, or that someone in New Albany knows enough about South Bend to make an informed decision about which team is the fourth-best in its class and which team is the ninth-best in its class is entirely unreasonable.

National polls are even sillier.

So take with a grain of salt Lake Central’s No. 1 ranking in the state coaches poll, and the Indians’ No. 1 ranking in the Midwest and No. 20 ranking in the nation according to ESPN.

Not that the players mind the attention, of course.

“It’s a big deal to us,” LC pitcher Taylor Lehnert said. “We want to keep it. We want to keep proving ourselves and show that we are No. 1.”

But the Indians know that early season rankings don’t mean much 30 years down the road. Championships do.

“I think we all the love the target on our back,” said senior ace Jimmy McNamara. “All these things, the whole ESPN No. 20 in the country and No. 1 in the Midwest thing are nice. But I think I can speak for the whole team: If we don’t get the ring at the end of the year, I don’t think it’s a successful season. All these things are nice, but the state championship ring is the thing we want the most.”

Slicers stumble: The biggest surprise of the baseball season so far? It might just be LaPorte, which now has a 6-7 record after falling 7-3 to Michigan City on Wednesday. The Slicers are now 1-3 in the Duneland Conference. The state’s most decorated baseball program isn’t used to being under .500, but write the Slicers off at your own peril. LaPorte handily won at Valparaiso, and lost by one run on the road against both Portage and Chesterton, and another loss came to a strong Hobart squad.

After losing an all-Purdue battery of Connor Podkul and Kyle Upp, six total college-bound players, and almost all of their pitching experience, early growing pains were to be expected for the Slicers. There’s still plenty of talent in the roster — there always is.

So while they won’t catch Lake Central (nobody will) or even Crown Point and Portage near the top of the Duneland, don’t kid yourself. You won’t want to face LaPorte in the postseason.

That’s as much a fact of life as death and taxes.



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