By Robert Husseman • Sports Editor • 

When grass isn't much greener

A turf field is more than a status symbol for high schools and colleges. It is a cultural adjustment.

“Some folks would say, hey, we’re the grass seed capital of the world,” longtime Dayton baseball coach Roger Lorenzen says. “My brother (Lynn) raises grass seed in Dayton. Why are we having an artificial surface? But the reality is the weather in Oregon.”

It gets nasty here. Rain turns a manicured grass field into a mud pit as soon as you can say, “Twenty-two! Thirty-four! Set! Hut! Hut!” Cancellation or postponement of high school sporting events is a fact of life.

An anonymous donor has financially spearheaded a project that would save Dayton High School the agony of some rainouts with an undisclosed donation toward artificial surfaces at Gubser Field (football), Jim Connelly Field (softball) and the Dayton baseball field. (As with the McMinnville baseball field at Patton Middle School, the Pirates will have turf infields and grass outfields.)

Construction is slated to begin on Gubser Field on June 12; it is expected to take three weeks to lay out the artificial football and soccer surface. (The Pirates begin double-day practices on Aug. 18.) Construction will move to the baseball and softball fields after the football field is complete; those will require about two weeks of work, according to Dayton Athletic Director Todd Shirley.

Shirley said the Dayton School District will not incur additional costs as the turf fields are installed.

“Three years ago, we asked about turf,” Shirley says. “I don’t think anybody had ever talked about turf before. That turned around very fast.

“Hopefully, people understand and appreciate the kind of support we have in this community.”

Artificial turf football fields are increasingly common in the state of Oregon, with at least 25 high schools using turf fields. (West Salem High School’s black field is the only one in the state that deviates from the traditional green playing surface.) Turf baseball and softball fields are less common but gaining in prominence; consider the McMinnville baseball field.

What is unusual is a turf football field at a public school of Dayton’s size (about 340 students) – let alone three different fields. Some private schools in Oregon at or below Dayton’s enrollment also boast turf fields, but those schools tend to have wealthy donor bases that can absorb the costs more easily.

The Community Sports Development Council (CSDC), a nonprofit organization based in Salem, is helping the Pirates trim costs by supplying labor and materials for the project. “Our goal, for an approved project, is to cover (50 to 70 percent) of the cost of a new sports venue that can impact and serve a school district, college, parks and recreation department, church or other similar organization,” the CSDC states on its website. A message to the CSDC seeking comment was not returned.

On its website, the CSDC lists as accomplishments a number of fields in Oregon but also fields in far-flung locales such as Guatemala, South Africa and Ireland. “The CSDC alliance members are strategic companies, venders and sponsors that manufacture and/or supply critical and often expensive components & services for sports facilities,” its website states. “In some instances, we have also been able to leverage these resources with local urban renewal, government grants, private donor funding and/or sports lottery funds.”

The appeal of artificial turf lies in year-round playing opportunities and maintenance. Lorenzen estimates that as many as 15 man-hours are spent by landscaping company C and D Landscaping mowing the baseball field each week. That does not include drawing base lines, raking dirt and other specific tasks.

“During the course of a school day, if you are a spring athletic director, you start looking at a Doppler (radar) the night before,” Lorenzen says. “What’s my day going to look like? If people are coming this direction, we can say, ‘All right, we’re good.’”

Artificial turf cannot simply be rolled out on the ground like a carpet. A base must be constructed, followed by a drainage method – Dayton will use a tiled system to keep water from pooling on the turf. The Pirates’ fields are designed to last 18 to 20 years, according to Shirley.

“We’ll have to monitor the sunflower seeds and the gum now,” Dayton softball coach Rob Umbenhower says. “The worst thing we’ll have to worry about is probably a wet outfield.”

“I think there’s a perception that, when you have turf, you just kind of show up, play, and leave,” Shirley says. “(Maintenance) takes some work on a regular basis.”

Gubser Field will undergo the most dramatic changes. The grass field has been used with track and field in mind, so elements like the long jump pits will be removed during construction. Pirates boys and girls soccer will join football in using the surface on game days.

“It’ll change the game (of football),” says Umbenhower, formerly Dayton’s head football coach. “It makes it even faster. It’s going to benefit a quick team.”

Shirley is seizing the momentum of the artificial turf campaign and soliciting donations for additional renovations to Memorial Stadium. Among the list of projects: new stadium lights, new concession stands, new restrooms and new storage facilities for football and other athletics equipment.

How to pay for all that? In addition to financial and in-kind donations, Shirley will approach various organizations for grant money. That process remains in its infancy.

“We’re open to any contribution we can get,” Shirley says. “We don’t want to put our Ferrari in a shack – we want to put it in a nice garage.”

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