Ready or not, games will begin

Soccer: Rain has taken a toll on construction at Covenant Park, where a 200-team tournament is set to start Saturday.

May 23, 2004|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

If you've ever had a house built and about two weeks from settlement found the drywall incomplete, the wiring not done, and your new yard nothing but mud, you know exactly how leaders of the Soccer Association of Columbia-Howard County feel today.

Frustrated. Worried. Harried. Nervous. Excited.

SAC-HC's annual big-deal Memorial Day weekend tournament is scheduled to open at Covenant Park on Saturday. More than 200 teams have invitations that say many games -- including the showcase match-ups between high school juniors before hundreds of college coaches -- will be played at a new complex.

But in the middle of last week, the carpet (literally, it's industrial-caliber rug) was finished on one of three synthetic fields. Huge rolls for the other two were stacked nearby -- 240,000 square feet combined.

The road from Centennial Lane and the main parking lot were drivable but on packed gravel with a gloppy surface. The electrical contractor was still digging trenches for cables to 16 light towers, all of which were installed but still awaiting some cables, transformers -- juice. And mud! Just say footing was nasty everywhere that wasn't carpet, gravel or grass.

Rain, which has dogged construction on the $5.5 million complex as far back as last year, was falling almost every afternoon and evening.

"We're going to be ready," insisted association president David Procida, showing around a visitor he had advised an hour earlier to "wear boots." That was sound advice from the relative newcomer to the club.

"It's going to look like emeralds surrounded by dirt, not what it'll be like when it's all finished," Procida said. "But we're going to make it [for the tournament]. The parking lot will be paved; the fields will be done. We'll have straw everywhere that people have to walk."

Separately, Jim Carlan, one of the soccer club's two most senior members, its former president, and current chief operating officer, said: "But if it keeps raining every day ..." His voice trailed off. Carlan has been involved in Covenant Park and what owning land means to the club and sport locally since the late 1970s.

If Procida, who knows something about construction from his work life, proves mostly correct, Covenant Park -- for which SAC-HC began setting aside nearly $1 million, at $10 a registration, more than a decade ago -- will have its first games played by next Sunday.

(But if Mother Nature doesn't cooperate, Carlan has contingency plans for conducting the tournament the usual way -- on school and rec-and-parks fields all over Howard County.)

Portable toilets and tents for the ceremonial area were already on order. That's because the 6,500-player soccer organization's new two-story headquarters -- housing offices, space for coaches and other staff members, and turf and game equipment -- was not expected to be finished. But it was supposed to be at least under way by now.

It's not. Procida and Carlan figure they'll be fortunate to move in this fall.

Whether Covenant Park opens next weekend or not, what the visitor found last week was an emerging complex that will impress soccer aficionados in this county and beyond.

One synthetic turf field -- the first for amateur, non-college athletes in Central Maryland and the first of what could become seven in Howard County within a couple years -- was playable last week. It's almost startling in appearance, bright green with white stripes and a bladed surface that players will like.

The limestone base was all but complete for an adjoining synthetic turf field, and the laying of the carpet and packing tens of thousands of plastic grass blades with millions of tiny rubber beads -- ground-up, recycled tires -- can be completed with relative speed. Whether the third synthetic field would be finished seemed likely to go to the wire; it was graded but appeared to be mostly mud.

Two real-grass fields -- Kentucky bluegrass -- also were sharp green in appearance. They're ready for play, Procida said, given a day or two to dry out and another mowing or two, plus lining.

Those who participated in past Columbia Invitational Tournaments, when the finals were contested simultaneously on five fields at Centennial High School before nearby Burleigh Manor Middle School was built, will pick up a familiar vibe at Covenant Park.

You'll be able to prowl the edges of Covenant's main parking lot and, because of the hilly terrain, see games on, when all is finished, eight fields.

But the best view, from the site's highest spot, will belong to Covenant Baptist Church, which sold part of its land to the soccer club to pay for a new sanctuary that is to begin later this year.

The soccer club first talked with the church about buying acreage in the 1980s. But that deal collapsed in plans for other things, and then those plans collapsed, too. Then, in 1999, reports of the land being back on the market resurfaced. Procida became SAC-HC's negotiator.

"It was a match made in heaven," Carlan said last week, recalling several unrelated attempts to attain land for the club that fell through. "In reality, this probably was our last shot at finding land in Howard County."

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