Dave Johnson knew the drill, and you can bet there were times it drove him crazy.
“After every soccer game, after every football game, we would make the entire team line up at one end of the field and walk down replacing divots as best as we could,” said Johnson, who spent 34 years as Bunnell High’s athletic director before retiring in June. “I can remember all those times when rain was in the forecast, particularly heavy rain, and you would agonize, ‘Do I cancel?’
“It wasn’t that you couldn’t play the game. It was if you did play the game, and ruined the field in September in a rainstorm, then you didn’t have much of a field to play on in October and November.”
Other athletic directors dealt with similar concerns, knowing they could ill afford to chew up the only field they had in early September and spend the next few months pouring time — and, in some cases, more money — into repairs.
Ultimately, many school officials found that the best way to combat the problem was to replace their natural grass with synthetic turf — often infilled with crumb rubber produced from scrap tires or an organic fill such as cork — which was not only more cost-effective but significantly more durable.
Today, these schools are reaping the rewards of that decision.
“You can play in the rain. It takes 60 gallons of rain an hour and it’s still playable until dry. There’s no puddles,” said Joe Velardi, the athletic director at Pomperaug High in Southbury, which in 2004 became the first South-West Conference school to install turf. “It used to be, in the fall on a grass field, there became all this unevenness.”
Weighing the costs
Before Bunnell offered lacrosse, Johnson shut down the school’s field each spring so that it could aerate and be re-seeded in time for a busy fall. But in 2008, the Town of Stratford paid $920,000 to replace the grass surface with artificial turf grass.
“Even with the state-of-art, fully funded grounds crew and maintenance program, it was just impossible to keep a good set of grass, a good field, without the synthetic turf,” said Johnson, who transitioned this year to SWC commissioner. “As soon as the fall started … it wouldn’t last that long. You weren’t really playing on grass, you were playing on dirt.”
Synthetic turf fields can be used around the clock in just about any weather condition. Their durability is invaluable, especially when poor weather conditions send teams scurrying for a place to practice.
Artificial turf or grass? Grass or artificial turf? No matter the preference, there’s always a cost involved.
Carl Samuelson, the assistant director of parks in Newtown, said the initial cost for a high school stadium turf field runs from $1 million to $1.25 million on average, but there are other variables, too. Installing logos at midfield or in the end zone, in the case of football, can send costs soaring.
“When you start getting into logos,” Johnson said, “you’re talking tens upon tens of thousands of additional dollars.”
According to the Sports Turf Managers Association, synthetic infill can range between $6.50 and $11 per square foot. By comparison, natural grass with native soil costs between $2.25 and $5.25 per square foot.
At Newtown High, which had a new carpet installed at Blue and Gold Stadium in 2010 as part of an extensive renovation project, the synthetic turf football field is the go-to spot when playing space is limited.
Aside from the grass fields behind the high school that are primarily used for practices and tend to wear down with all the miles they pack, teams also have access to a pair of artificial turf fields in town — Treadwell Park and Tilson Field.
“If you look at any Penn State articles, Michigan State, they say that a natural grass field should host 25 events per play season,” said Samuelson. “I mean, we host 25 events on a natural grass field in a week. That’s not realistic for a municipality.”
The turf at Treadwell Town Park in Newtown — used for high school soccer, field hockey, lacrosse and town recreation programs — was installed 10 years ago for $750,000 and replaced last year for $350,000. Likewise, Tilson Field cost roughly $725,000 to install in 2009, Samuelson said.
While the costs might seem steep at first glance, the thought is that synthetic turf — which costs about $6,000 per year to maintain, according to the STMA — gives users more bang for their buck than grass. Overusing grass just increases maintenance costs that can be twice as expensive as turf.
“The more you use it,” Samuelson said, “the lower your cost-per-play hour. That’s the beauty of the artificial (turf surfaces). … They allow me to take better care of my grass fields. Whenever it rains or it’s wet, I can put anything on the artificials.”
In Seymour, which opened a brand-new artificial turf grass surface at DeBarber Field last month, First Selectman Kurt Miller said the town expects to budget $55,000 to $60,000 starting in 2017-18 to cover maintenance costs for the synthetic surface, which has a life expectancy of 12 to 15 years.
Making the switch
Turf is a common sight in the SWC, where nine of the 12 high schools will play their home football games on the surface next year. And, it’s even more popular in the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference, where all 17 schools will have turf surfaces next season.
Trinity Catholic is working on its new artificial turf field that will be used for varsity and junior varsity football, boys and girls soccer, lacrosse and field hockey. The construction is part of a three-phase plan — the ENVISION Campaign — to modernize the school’s facilities.
“It’s an exciting thing,” said Tracy Nichols, who is in his 33rd year as athletic director at the Stamford school. “It brings the school on par with everyone else. … It allows us a lot of latitude with other sports.”
The Trinity Catholic project is hardly cheap — the fundraising goal for Phase 1 was set at $2.3 million for the new turf, lighting and upgrades to the grandstands and press box — but Nichols believes the new field will give the school some much-needed flexibility with its games and practices.
Likewise, Greenwich Academy replaced two 12-year-old synthetic turf fields last month with a sand-and-rubber infill that is cushioned with elastic layer shock padding. Both fields are lined for field hockey, lacrosse and soccer, but one surface was designed to play quicker than the other.
“We just kind of did a redesign,” said Martha Brousseau, who is in her sixth year as athletic director at the private, all-girls school. “It was a huge improvement, but we haven’t sacrificed what we had at the beginning, which were two really outstanding turf fields. Now, we have one really more designed for fast ball roll and one designed for your traditional turf.”
Brousseau did not reveal the cost of the project — which also included a new softball field and a practice area for track and field — but did say the school received “generous support from current and past alums” through fundraising.
“It wasn’t inexpensive, but it encompassed more than just replacing the carpet of the field,” she added. “We would love to get another 12-year investment out of the project.”
Last month in New Milford, residents approved a $4 million bonding package to install two artificial turf fields and upgrade the high school’s track and lighting.
There are other benefits, too.
Artificial turf gives schools the opportunity to host neutral-site state tournament games, which can be money-makers for booster clubs. Bunnell, for example, hosts the girls lacrosse state championships each year.
“The booster club is running the concession stand,” Johnson said. “That is a huge source of revenue for the school, for the athletic program, for the community.”
The changing times
As excited as Nichols is for the future at Trinity Catholic, he sympathizes with those who will miss the past.
“Our kids, especially our football kids, they certainly don’t complain about playing on our regular grass,” he said. “They kind of enjoy it. In other words, they don’t look at other schools and say, ‘Wow, they have this, they have that.’”
While synthetic turf has grown in popularity through the years, grass is by no means going out of style. The Naugatuck Valley League has two grass fields that are rich in tradition: Ansonia’s Nolan Field and Derby’s DeFilippo Field.
“Between here and Nolan, we’re two of the last remaining in the area,” Derby football coach George French said. “It’s special in some ways because you think of the old teams and the old way and how things are done.”
French expressed an interest in transitioning to turf at some point, but he did note that grass — in a messy way — occasionally presents some advantages for the home team.
“New Canaan was playing Naugatuck up when Naugatuck had that mud bowl,” he said. “New Canaan won that game (21-12 in the 2010 Class L quarterfinals), but they had to change their cleats three times to figure out how to get their footing.
“It does make a difference to some extent because there’s a lot more give on this surface than a turf one.”
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