COLUMBIA — Rock Bridge baseball coach Justin Towe stands with his arms crossed, eyes shifting between four groups of hitters simultaneously taking swings before him.
“Six years ago I had a pipe dream,” Towe says.
Outside the temperature has dropped to 43 degrees and the wind howls off the high school. But Towe is wearing shorts. His players are dry, protected from the elements by a long, metal structure built last year specifically for days like Thursday.
“It’s great because we can come in here, get some work in on a day like this,” Towe said.
He smiles when he talks about this place, which is nestled behind the school’s football field and from the outside looks like a toddler’s yellow and green drawing of a barn. It’s a smile that is content, bordering on proud. It’s the smile of a man who had a dream and transformed it into life.
Rock Bridge’s home schedule has been decimated during the first month of this season by the early spring’s relentless rain. The Bruins have had four games cancelled or postponed in the past 10 days alone, including a showdown against rival Hickman. In all, Rock Bridge has played just four games in the past two weeks, and only two in Columbia.
That’s hard to manage with a game like baseball, which is so focused on day-to-day preparation, muscle memory and repetition. Before this indoor facility was built, a rainy day for the Bruins meant a little running and probably not much else. Sometimes they would take to the basketball gym, but the hardwood floor and lack of proper equipment made for an unfulfilling practice.
“We’re one of the biggest high schools in the state and we didn’t have a net in the gym,” Towe said.
The indoor facility has two net cages, which are long enough to be divided into four hitting stations. Three portable wooden pitching mounds are stacked up against the back wall, ready to be deployed when the batters are done. Rock Bridge is getting a full practice in, and the man in the shorts telling the batters to use their top hand is the reason why.
Towe first pitched the idea with the parents of the players. Getting gym time wasn’t easy at the start of the season because of the basketball schedule, and renting out private hitting facilities was expensive for all involved. They were supportive, one group even offering a large, private donation.
The money for the building eventually came through the Rock Bridge Booster Club and an annual banquet that brings in, according to Towe, anywhere from $80 to $130,000 in one night for the Rock Bridge athletic department.
Some of that money went towards finishing the football field, more to the baseball concession stand and the school’s facilities for its trainers. But there was enough to build the indoor baseball facility, which six years later sits attached to the football equipment shed in the school’s extensive green backyard.
It took a while, “There are more codes and red tape when building something on a public school,” Towe said, but the Bruins baseball team has an oasis where they can escape particularly wet weeks like this past one.
Thursday, Jansen Smith took swings in the same net as a teammate hitting in the opposite direction, the two separated by a screen. Behind them, another pair of Bruins did the same thing. The place filled with the sound of chatter and baseballs slamming off of wood and dropping into buckets. Four guys hitting on a rainy day, others waiting to jump in next.
And when they finished, the nets would come down and the pitching mounds turned upright, and the pitchers had a place to throw, warm and dry.