Forget Friday Night Lights, Mervo would settle for an afternoon field

On High Schools

High Schools

October 22, 2004|By MILTON KENT

THE SCHEDULE says that the Mervo football team is to play a home game today against Patterson, but Dontae Foster, Gary Wallace, Matthew Thompson and James Robinson all know better.

These four senior captains will be following the same routine they have for four years, getting on a bus and heading for another school, as the concept of a home football game is as real as leprechauns, fairies and the witches with bad teeth and pointy hats that will be the rage next week.

"Sometimes, I go home and think about it," said Foster, Mervo's quarterback. "Why are they doing this to us? We have athletes to compete with other schools. Basically, I feel that they are taking away our success, because we don't have a field."

Soon, though, there may be success for the Mustangs, because they may get their very own place to play, possibly before the end of the season.

Vanessa Pyatt, a spokeswoman for the city schools system, said yesterday that the football field could be open for business within two weeks, as soon as work on the track surrounding the field is finished.

The Mervo stadium is in front of the school, surrounded by a mesh fence, reinforced by strong, blue plastic. Peek through the holes in the fence, and you see what appears to be a nice facility, with a pair of goalposts, a scoreboard, six light standards, and stands. Get a lawnmower out to cut the high grass, expel the gulls who occasionally perch on the field, and you would, in theory, at least, have the makings of a football field.

And opening the stadium would be a nice thing to do for the soccer team, which practiced one day this week on a 30- or 40-yard square patch of grass, dirt and sidewalk in front of the school, with a couple of 3-by-3 nets that would have facilitated a game for 6-year-olds, not high school soccer players.

But the stadium, originally budgeted for $2.789 million when constuction began in June 2000, became the ultimate white elephant. Construction, which was supposed to take two years, was slowed when unanticipated water and rock were discovered on the site, Pyatt said.

Then, there was a disagreement between the city and the contractor, BEKA Industries, about overruns, and a lawsuit was filed by the contractor. A city judge found for BEKA and ordered the city to pay $400,000 more to finish the project.

In the meantime, while the matter was being litigated, Pyatt said school officials decided not to open the stadium until the issues had been resolved, including a problem with the track's design.

"It certainly has taken a long time, and certainly much longer than we anticipated," Pyatt said. Indeed, each afternoon marks another day in the surreal for the Mustangs, who must dress in their gym, then scout for a place to practice.

Most days, the team must cross all six lanes of Hillen Road in a busy area between 33rd Street and Morgan State University to practice, under a statue of Martin Luther just off Hillen Road and across from Lake Montebello.

The spot they play in, five minutes from campus, would be better suited for a pickup game for kids half the age of high school players, trying to get serious about their sport.

While the JV unit runs through their routine on a narrow tract, surrounded by pine trees across from Lakeside Avenue, the 30 or so varsity players work out on a piece of land down a slope that would make for a perfect belly- whompin' spot this winter when the snow comes.

For football, however, this territory would have to undergo a vast improvement. For one thing, there is no level part of the area that is 50 yards long, so not only can't the Mustangs run true deep pass patterns, but they cannot break out into separate offensive, defensive or special teams drills.

The inappropriateness of where they practice shows in a couple of places. The first is in the sprained ankles the players suffer from stepping in potholes. The captains tell of teammates who have broken toes on their make-do field, but Matthew Thompson's twin, Mark, would probably yearn for a bad ankle or toes. Mark tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee early in the year during a practice and is lost for the entire season.

The second is on Friday afternoons, when the 1-4 Mustangs, unable to practice on a full field, go up against teams that have that benefit. As a result, their opponents are in better shape, particularly late in games.

"We can't use that as an excuse, but people have to understand," Foster said. "Imagine what kind of Mervo team they would face if we were playing in that stadium? Not even having a home game, but having a place to practice? We'd be in better shape. We're used to it, but we still suffer from it."

It's a given that athletes make the best of their surroundings, and city athletes, perhaps more than most, given the precarious position of the school system, struggling to put out fires, real and otherwise, have to cope a bit more.

But the Mervo football players are going on nearly four years of taking buses to every game. They are going on nearly four years without pep rallies, without a partisan crowd of their own.

For the players, the unkindest cut is that they have had no homecoming game at which ex-Mustangs could come and revel and raise high the blue and gold.

"We're seniors, and all we want is one week on that field," said Foster. "If we get one week, we won't even cry about it any more. All we can really do is hope that the juniors and sophomores get it for their remaining years."

With a little pixie dust in the right places and a crowd willing to believe, Foster and his fellow seniors just might get their wishes.

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