Timeout Football: When it comes to NWI fields, all things are not equal
By Steve T. Gorches 648-3141 or email@example.com August 29, 2013 11:14PM
Whiting Oilers new turf field on Thursday August 29, 2013. | Jim Karczewski\For Sun-Times Media
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Updated: October 1, 2013 6:19AM
Three years ago, smartphones were owned by only 20 percent of the population of the United States.
Some thought the do-it-all cell phones were degrading society. Most knew it was progress.
As of July, 2013, more than 60 percent of Americans own a smartphone, and it’s projected to reach 80 percent by 2015.
That could be the way of high school football, particularly in Northwest Indiana.
A little more than eight years ago, there were no schools in the region using artificial turf for football.
Many coaches thought it was a degradation of old-school football, which is supposed to be played on grass.
Then, in 2005, Portage became the first region school and fifth in the state to install turf.
Eight years later, 11 of the 36 Northwest Indiana schools with football have some kind of turf (12 if you count Boone Grove, which plays its home games on Valparaiso High School’s turf), whether it’s Prestige, like Portage, or FieldTurf like Chesterton and most others, or Shaw Sports Turf like the 11th region turf school — Whiting. And three more will add turf next season — Griffith, LaPorte and Lake Central.
It’s football’s version of the smartphone. Soon grass fields will be outnumbered by turf terrain.
Of course, like with smartphones, some people are stubborn.
“Personally, I don’t want it,” Rensselaer coach Chris Meeks said. “Teams like (Fort Wayne) Luers with their speed, a grass field equalizes things out.”
Others who most wouldn’t expect to want turf — like Griffith, whose former coach and current New Prairie coach Russ Radtke once said, “We’ll never get turf as long as I’m here” — are open to modern amenities.
“After playing Mishawaka in a mud slick (last year in sectionals), I think if someone asked us, we’ll take turf,” said longtime Lowell assistant coach Jim Carlson.
The perception with the Red Devils is that they’re a running team and would prefer grass. But head coach Keith Kilmer used another example of a loss to Concord in the sectional three years ago.
“It rained on Friday and we played the game on Saturday and it was a mud pit up the middle of the field,” he said. “We couldn’t do anything.”
Dollars and sense
Financially, turf makes sense for almost any school that cares about football. Over the long haul, the $600,000 to $750,000 investment pays for itself. That’s part of the reason Griffith came to a decision to install turf for the 2014 season, in addition to upgrading other athletic fields.
“The school has done a good job in academic areas and rightfully so; those things should always be done first,” said Griffith coach Jim Pickett. “Well, now the school was looking into doing something athletically. We had a group of concerned parents about how our fields had been deteriorating. They stated their opinion and the two sides worked together. And the price of turf has come down a lot since Portage did it.
“And (the school corporation) knew our position on turf and that we wanted it as a staff. It will be better for our kids in protecting them from certain injuries and our soccer team will be able to utilize it.”
Obviously, that’s a reversal from the previous coach’s opinion, but Pickett admitted he wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole since he was Radtke’s assistant for a couple decades.
Aesthetically, over course, it makes sense. Take a look at the ragged grass fields at Clark in north Hammond and Lake Central after myriad soccer games, football practices and games wear it out.
LC gets to say farewell to its cow pasture next season when the new field will be built where part of the old school currently stands. Clark, on the other hand, has to deal with its longtime rival six blocks away (Whiting), as well as a conference rival (Morton) each having turf.
“The community supported it and the finances worked out,” Whiting school superintendent Sandra Martinez said. “There’s very little impact on our taxpayers since we were dropping off a bond.”
She added that a study provided to her staff showed the turf would save $25,000 in maintenance costs.
“You see (turf fields) at other schools and you now realize this is Whiting, Indiana,” said Whiting athletic director Paul Laub. “It’s a dream come true.”
Hammond’s turf war
But it’s a nightmare for three Hammond schools that are part of the biggest conundrum in region sports. There are four Hammond public high schools, plus a private school in Bishop Noll, but only Morton has football turf. That begs the question: Why? At least three schools want to know.
“I would love to have turf, but we don’t complain,” said Gavit coach Robert Robinson, who has also coached at Hammond High. “We tell our kids we can’t worry about it.”
Hammond coach Eric Schreiber said what many football fans across the city have been thinking.
“It would be nice if all things were equal,” he said. “There are definitely differences. We make the best with what we have. With worrying about getting enough footballs, practice jerseys and helmet decals and feeding these kids before games, field turf is the furthest thing from my mind.”
Hammond superintendent Walter Watkins confirmed that equality doesn’t exist in his city.
“The turf at Morton was a donation to the school city because the mayor (Thomas McDermott Jr.) had an interest in the Hessville Vipers (youth football program),” Watkins said. “We weren’t going to refuse that chance for the kids.”
Watkins said the money came from the city’s gaming revenue, which McDermott confirmed to be the case.
“There may have been some unfavorable sentiment about Morton getting turf, but it was funded by the mayor,” he said. “The school city cannot afford turf. I wish there were donors for the other schools.”
Well, there actually is a “donor” for the others. It’s McDermott, but he tossed a huge caveat back at Watkins.
“I would use (gaming revenues) for turf at other schools, too, but the school city needs to come up with a plan,” said McDermott, referring to the consolidation of schools that’s been talked about for a decade. “Hammond shouldn’t have four high schools with a population of 80,000. It should be two or three at the most.”
Part of the numerous consolidation plans that haven’t materialized include making Clark and/or Gavit just a middle school.
“Why would I have a field built at Clark or Gavit only to have it turned into a middle school?” McDermott asked. “This is an issue the school city should have addressed a long time ago. If there was a brand new Hammond High School, I would be more than willing to help build a new field.”
It’s not just propaganda from a lifelong politician. McDermott has put his money where his mouth is by funding Purdue University Calumet’s turf fields to be installed at Dowling Park for soccer, baseball and softball from the same gaming revenue. He also said there have been talks with Calumet College of St. Joseph’s to build a turf field for its soccer teams somewhere on the north side so the Crimson Wave doesn’t have to play its games at East Chicago, another school corporation with turf fields.
Morton coach and athletic director Roydon Richards won’t apologize about being the only Hammond school with turf, especially after the Governors have won four straight sectional titles since getting it installed.
“I was asking for turf for two years before we got it,” Richards said. “Everyone was laughing at me (for asking). In a perfect world, I’d love to have four school logos out there and everyone use it.”
That isn’t going to happen anytime soon as long as the mayor and school corporation aren’t on the same page.
As for other schools without turf, those grass fields are going the way of the flip phone. It’s time to get smart.