The sound of the baseball smacking into the catcher's glove was louder than anything John Dzurka had heard before.
"I felt like I was throwing gas," said the senior pitcher from D.C. Everest (Schofield, Wis.).
That happens when pitching off the bullpen mound down the left-field line in a virtually-empty Mall of America Field.
The former home to the Minnesota Twins is still used nearly 24 hours a day by high school and college baseball teams that need a place to play, while awaiting weather warm enough to clear their snow-covered fields.
They'll play full-length games in front of more than 60,000 empty seats that, when filled, created one of the loudest major league ballparks. But the Twins have played home games outdoors at Target Field since 2010, leaving their former home in high demand for schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
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That demand is what caused Everest to begin its three-hour scrimmage Thursday against Middleton at 3 a.m. The schools split a $750 per-hour cost to rent the dome, Everest coach Dave Langbehn said, and that was a discounted fare because of the early-morning time slot, he added.
The trip was well worth the 3 a.m. game time. Until Thursday, Everest hitters had been confined to cages and fielders to scooping grounders off the high school gym floor.
"It was nice to see live pitching and hit off that," senior outfielder and pitcher Zach Finnegan said. "Also, it was the first time we saw flyballs this year. It was different. It was like a game."
The teams played to six outs per half inning and worked on situational plays, the emphasis being to work on whatever they couldn't do in a gym.
To prepare for the early-morning start, the team held 6 a.m. practices Tuesday and Wednesday at the high school before a 10 a.m. Wednesday departure to Minneapolis. The team visited Mall of America in the afternoon and slept at a hotel before a 1 a.m. wake-up to go to the stadium.
They entered the stadium on the concourse level and took photos as they walked down the bleachers toward the field.
"We dropped our bags and started taking pictures," senior Vince Collelo said. "Even when we got to the parking lot, we were taking pictures. Our coaches were like, 'You need to get on the field and take pictures.'"
Once in the third-base side dugout, players wondered where major leaguers such as Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter or former Twins ace Johan Santana might have sat.
In the field, Collelo said the rubbery surface caused some batted balls to bounce as high as 20 feet in the air. The infamous white Teflon roof also was a challenge, as Langbehn said outfielders lost sight of three baseballs because of the similar colors.
"I'm glad I didn't have any hit to me during the scrimmage," Finnegan said.
Everest and Middleton booked the dome for the early-morning time slot about two months ago. That was the only time they could get.
The University of Minnesota played there at 6:35 p.m. Wednesday, and UW-Stout followed with a doubleheader against Macalester College. After Everest and Middleton cleared the field, Chequamegon and Phillips high schools played a doubleheader, and UW-La Crosse followed with a doubleheader against St. Scholastica at 12:15 p.m.
The Vikings will play one more season at the dome, before they play the 2014 and 2015 seasons at the University of Minnesota's outdoor stadium. In 2016, the Vikings will move to a new domed stadium, which also will be fitted for baseball.
Players said the experience will help the team off to a good start one season after a one-run loss in a sectional final that prevented it from reaching the WIAA state tournament.
After the scrimmage, the team returned to Weston in two Chevy Suburbans and two full-length vans driven by coaches.
Langbehn said this was the first time since he joined the Everest baseball program in the early 1990s that the team used the stadium. Told the new stadium will also have a baseball diamond, he said he'd take his team back there.
"It was well worth the experience," he said.