MISSOULA — Western Montana has endured its own brand of March Madness.
It's not nearly as exciting as the college basketball version.
Lingering ice and snow have been a nightmare for area high school softball, track, tennis and golf athletes. So much so, I've officially declared it the Early Spring of our Discontent.
No one has felt the wrath of Old Man Winter more than Missoula's high school tennis teams. They were supposed to be out practicing on the public courts on March 11.
Snow is still an issue today at Playfair Park, in part because the city would not allow the teams to shovel the tennis courts. Up in Polson, the high school tennis teams and coaches shoveled and were out practicing weeks ago.
Those Polson kids already have meets under their belt. In Missoula, over 100 high school tennis players remain in a holding pattern until at least Monday.
"This is just here for good," Missoula Sentinel tennis coach Kelly Crisp joked of the snow at Playfair Park. "We've been practicing in the gym because the city won't clear the courts off. They're just going to let them melt. There was a foot of snow out there."
Missoula Hellgate tennis coach Brian Hanford is trying to be practical about what can only be described as an historic loss of March practice time. He knows from decades of experience that this time of year is unpredictable when it comes to tennis. Plus most of the state is dealing with the same weather issues.
But still ...
"For those seasonal kids, the athletes that go from sport to sport, losing three weeks of tennis practice is huge," Hanford said. "That's when we get all of our work done, all of our practice matches and work on individual skills. Then when we get into April, we're playing a (official) match every other day. We're way behind the 8-ball right now."
In 25 years, Corvallis softball coach Steve Tintzman has never seen a March in the Bitterroot Valley quite like this one.
On Wednesday, the Corvallis track teams hosted a meet that featured cold athletes running in between snowflakes the size of silver dollars.
Missoula Big Sky's track teams were supposed to attend a meet in Butte this coming Tuesday but that has been moved to Missoula on Thursday. Loyola Sacred Heart was supposed to make its home softball debut this Tuesday but the field won't be ready yet.
Ah, what's the use. Complaining about March weather in western Montana is like droning on about August heat in Yuma, Arizona. You get just as much mileage talking about what you had for dinner last night.
Fortunately, there is a heartwarming side to all this. Over the last few days, I've come to realize just how much heart that coaches and communities put into these already-condensed spring seasons.
The Hamilton softball team hosted Ronan last Monday because Broncs coach Dave Kearns and his assistants put in over 40 hours of work readying their field. Kearns will tell you that game never would have been possible without the help of volunteers who stepped forward to plow snow from the fields.
In Missoula, the Peak Racquet Club has stepped forward to help the high school tennis programs. Every team in the city has been permitted to play at the pristine indoor facility twice a week for a small fee of $10 per child.
What's so great about that? Hey, if you grew up like me in a blue-collar family, the chance to play at the local private club for peanuts would have had you jumping out of your sneakers.
The best news is that the weather is gradually improving. Hints of green of are beginning to show through the brown grass.
Soon the snow will be a distant memory and we'll all be outside enjoying high school athletics. But at least for now, there's no way around it — Old Man Winter beat up on western Montana like the Wolverines beat up the Grizzlies in that other March Madness event.