COLUMBUS — Members of the Columbus Outlaws 9’s were practicing fielding drills.
As head coach Denny Sliva hit grounders, the ball bounced off the turf and was gloved by an infielder who threw to first base.
Another ball was smacked high into the air, reaching an outfielder who positioned himself to make the catch.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do that before,” Sliva said.
The high ceiling — 35 feet above the artificial turf surface — provides enough space for his team to practice fly ball drills, something the Outlaws couldn't do during indoor practices before moving into the recently renovated space at 1C Church/The Sanctuary.
The church purchased the former Columbus Family YMCA building in 2015 and relocated there after months of renovation work. The area that used to house the only indoor tennis courts in Columbus also got transformed.
The net posts were removed and artificial turf was installed for baseball and softball practices, as well as other sports. There are also nets in an adjacent gym for batting practice.
Pastor Chris Decker, whose sons play baseball, said converting the area from tennis courts to a facility that can be used for multiple sports maximizes the space for the biggest community impact.
There was mutual interest between the church and baseball community to turn the space into an indoor practice facility, Decker said. The local teams were looking for space, and the church had it.
Baseball and softball programs have been using different facilities in the community to practice during the winter. The Outlaws 9’s were utilizing the old Walmart building. Although that building is empty, poles and a low ceiling didn’t make it ideal for practice. Neither did the carpet they played on.
Sliva said he couldn’t hit fly balls in that building. There also wasn’t an actual infield like there is at the church.
The Outlaws, which pays $750 per team to rent the space, is just one program using the updated facility. Decker said he also has contracts signed by or has been in contact with the Columbus Mariners, Columbus Fire and Ice fast-pitch softball, Central Community College softball, Columbus Public Schools baseball and Lakeview Community Schools softball and baseball.
Erica Zywiec, Lakeview’s head softball coach, said an indoor practice facility was needed.
“I think our town lacks a place to go in the offseason, especially with pitchers and catchers,” she said.
Last offseason, her team was practicing in the gym at Shell Creek Elementary School, where she teaches. That space is much more limited than the area at 1C Church, which measures 118 by 104 feet.
The softball team practices indoors until about mid-March, when the weather warms up and the move can be made to the outdoor field at Lakeview High School.
Zywiec said she is happy there is an indoor facility in town and thinks it could have a positive effect on local programs.
“I think it would have a great impact. My girls don’t do a lot of offseason work because we don’t have a space to go to to get a lot of reps in,” she said.
Some programs, like the Columbus High baseball team, practiced at a local building that had indoor batting cages before that location closed.
A few of the baseball programs in town were considering buying the facility at 1508 25th St. but that idea was scrapped since the church project was already in the works, said Jimmy Johnson, CHS head baseball coach.
He said the 1C Church location is more spacious than what they were using before, creating more opportunities for players.
“I think it will be a great facility and it is really nice to have the amount of open space to play catch and take ground balls,” Johnson said.
Jack Gutierrez, Central Community College's athletic director and head softball coach, said he plans to have his team in the facility weekday afternoons.
“I’m really looking forward to getting our team in there. Obviously in Nebraska you can’t get outside until March 1. It is big enough to take ground balls and do some light hitting and in the cages you can set the machines up,” Gutierrez said.
The space won’t be limited to baseball and softball. Decker said the programs that have signed contracts are for Jan. 1 through June 30. After that, he said the church will use the space for summer and fall sports like youth and adult Frisbee competitions and indoor soccer.
Decker said the space is large enough to have up to three teams practicing at once. The plan is to use motorized netting to divide the area where the field turf is located when needed and prevent damage to lights and walls.
“We are hoping for the project to evolve over the next year to three years as grants and donations come in and rental of the facility to make improvements to that area,” Decker said.