Magic carpet? Schools replacing grass fields

October 03, 2007|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN REPORTER

St. Mary's running back Dontra Peters doesn't take as much of a beating as he used to. Now, when he gets tackled, he's not getting slammed into rock-hard dirt; he's getting slammed into cushy artificial turf.

The Saints' old home, Weems Whalen Field in Annapolis, was primarily dirt by this time of the season, but their new field, not far away at St. John Neumann Church, is a featherbed by comparison.

"At Weems, when you get tackled, it hurts," Peters said. "You've got rocks on the ground, and when you get up, you could be cut up and bleeding because you fell on something -- and the ground is hard itself. The turf kind of gives when you fall on it. It's like a cushion. You feel a lot better when you come home."

Artificial turf athletic fields have become increasingly popular in the past four years. Before 2003, there were none at area schools.

Now, teams at 10 Baltimore-area high schools are playing on artificial turf. Four fields are under construction and even more are in the planning stages. Anne Arundel County plans to convert all of its high school stadium fields within the next four years.

The use of synthetic playing surfaces has increased for a host of reasons, including cost effectiveness, safety, weather resistance and the smooth playing surface. But some say the fields won't last long enough to justify the cost.

Current forms of artificial turf differ greatly from AstroTurf, a smooth but hard surface first installed at the Moses Brown School in Providence, R.I., in 1964, said Darren Gill, director of marketing for FieldTurf Tarkett. The installation at the Houston Astrodome came two years later.

Today, several companies supply artificial surfaces that are much more forgiving. Most are installed with rubber and/or sand topped by synthetic grass with individual blades of varying length and thickness.

"Really, this has caught on much more than that original AstroTurf 40 years ago," said Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. "I think there's very little downside to them."

FieldTurf, the artificial surface at St. Mary's and Catonsville, will be installed on 520 fields across the country this year, including 150 for high schools, Gill said. He said his company's fields run about $700,000.

"It allows kids to play on a safe, manicured field every day of the year -- and I mean every day of the year," St. Paul's athletic director Paul S. Bernstorf said.

"It's just amazing the use you can get out of the field. On a natural grass field, to keep it in ideal condition, you can play 17 to 20 events in a season. We would get that in less than a week. We have two or three teams practice on it every day."

Funding varies

The private-school fields are funded with donations, but the public schools' have been paid for in a variety of ways.

Poly's field has the same playing surface, Sportexe Momentum, as M&T Bank Stadium -- and that's no coincidence.

The $1.3 million for the project came from the Ravens, the NFL and eight donors, including Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and former owner Art Modell, said Kevin Byrne, senior vice president of public and community relations for the Ravens. The entire stadium renovation -- field, lights, stands, locker rooms -- was included in the funding.

Bob Wade, Baltimore schools coordinator of athletics, said Ravens president Dick Cass approached him about the project in July 2005 and the field opened in fall 2006.

Byrne said: "We've been trying to work with the city schools, who lack some of the funding and attention that county schools in the area have, so we talked to the superintendent of schools and Coach Wade. They aimed us at Poly." Byrne added the Ravens are considering a second site in the city.

Broadneck's booster club raised $600,000 to supplement $125,000 from the Anne Arundel County recreation department. About 80 percent of the cost of installing 11 more fields will come from the state's Project Open Space, said Greg LeGrand, coordinator of athletics for the county.

In Harford County, athletics supervisor Ken Zorbach said the money for the North Harford field, set for completion in March 2008, will come from the recreation and parks department. Additional fields are being considered for Bel Air, Edgewood and Harford Tech high schools.

In those counties, as well as at Catonsville, high school programs get priority, but recreation and parks programs also use the turf as often as possible.

There are no plans for additional fields at Baltimore County high schools.

"Long term, the jury is not in on the long-term life expectancy," said Ron Belinko, coordinator of athletics for Baltimore County. "Look at the colleges. They got 10 years out of it, and they didn't get the use these fields are being put to. It's going to be the thing of the future, because they're not making land any longer, but they're expensive.

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