The AstroTurf field at Ridgeland High School turns a year old in a few weeks, and though no party will be held on its behalf, head football coach Mark Mariakis would buy it a present and take it to dinner if he could.
Mariakis’ wife, Debbie, who coaches only from the stands, would chip in as well.
For the first time in recent memory, the Mariakis' took off for vacation last week without having to make arrangements for someone to take over field maintenance duties. Make that fields. With the nearly maintenance-free field in place, Mark Mariakis no longer has to spend several hours each week taking care of the main field AND practice field.
That's just one of the many reasons the veteran coach has no regrets in pushing for the installation of the synthetic field, the top of the line product from Dalton-based AstroTurf that has become a selling point for the company. When a college, or country, inquires about purchasing a field, a trip to Rossville often follows.
“They said they would make it a showcase field and they did,” Mariakis said. “We had folks in from Boston College recently and within the past two months we've had people fly in from Europe, Australia and Sweden. I knew the field would be a major improvement, but I it's been better than we could ever expect.”
Walker County neighbor Gordon Lee will have an AstroTurf-installed field ready for the 2011 season, joining Ridgeland, Calhoun, Baylor and McCallie as Chattanooga-area high schools with synthetic fields. To a person, those who have the fields find it difficult to find anything negative to say about them.
“When people hear you're going to spend half-a-million dollars on a field, especially in this economy, it draws some concern,” Calhoun coach and athletic director Hal Lamb said. “But it has been more than worth it with us. Our field had terrible drainage problems and it was often unusable after it rained. We don't have to worry about that any longer and we don't have to have a practice field.”
Two other factors play into the fields' feasibility: schools actually save thousands of dollars each season on field maintenance and the fields can be used much more often than grass fields.
“For what it does for this school and community, it's irreplaceable,” said Mariakis, whose field, like Calhoun's, was a drainage nightmare. “Not only does it give us a great surface to play on, we also have a lined practice field that makes our practices so much cleaner and sharper.
“Also, it's getting used. We can play junior varsity and middle school games on it. The band practices on it and our soccer teams finally had some home games and nearly every Saturday our recreational program uses it. Those are priceless moments for kids to get to play on that field and you can see it in their eyes.”
Mariakis says the school system was spending several thousands of dollars each year to water, fertilize, mow, edge and line. “All that for a field used at most 10 times a year,” he said.
Baylor had its turf installed before the 2009 season and head coach Phil Massey, like Mariakis and Lamb, did so out of necessity. Massey also acknowledges that there is no gauging how much the peace of mind knowing the field will always be playable is worth.
“With playing lacrosse and middle school football there, it had gotten too tough trying to maintain the grass,” he said. “It's been a great investment for us and the kids seem to like it. It's pretty soft. You can still get a little bit of a carpet burn, but its nothing like the old [artificial] surfaces from the 1980s and early 1990s. Its a good cushion for the legs, you don't get the pounding and injuries. We do all our agility work on the field.”
AstroTurf's Todd Britton, who is also a veteran football official in northwest Georgia, estimates a typical grass field costs anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000 annually to maintain, making the decision to install the synthetic fields easier for even cash-strapped communities.
“When you consider a field takes between a half-million and a million gallons of water each year to go along with fertilizer and pesticides and gas for mowing, it all adds up,” said Britton, who recently returned from Tampa, where AstroTurf installed the new Rays' field. “In the long run, even when you have to replace the field one time [in approximately 10 years at an estimated one-fifth of the original cost], they pay for themselves.”
There are even fields that make money right away. Rome's Barron Stadium is the annual host of the NAIA Football Championship, but because of its poor playing surface the NAIA was seeking alternative sites for the game, something that would have cost the Rome area a good deal of money.
An AstroTurf field was installed and the NAIA and Rome officials recently signed an extension to keep the game at Barron through 2015.
Football fields are still the most popular form of synthetic fields due to the heavier wear and tear of football and soccer, but Britton says baseball fields are quickly gaining, due in large part to the larger number of times each year a baseball field is used. McCallie had an AstroTurf Extreme surface installed in its baseball infield last year.
“Baseball is huge right now,” Britton said. “We've done a number of college fields, including Duke, Wake Forest and Kansas, and we're doing Ohio State soon. We're the official turf of Major League Baseball. I expect more high schools to get [synthetic] baseball fields in the coming years.”
More will definitely go the synthetic route in football, likely beginning with Ringgold as it rebuilds its stadium after it was heavily damaged by April's tornado. And, as usual, Mark Mariakis will continue to sing his field's praises, especially when allowed to spend a carefree week away on vacation.
“Man, the hours you don't have to spend working on the field are priceless,” he beamed. “At this time of the year we would be cutting four times a week, applying fertilizer and always, always edging it. I don't miss it.”
The coach did, however, come up with a negative to having his one-year-old field.
“There is something I've thought about,” he smiled. “The younger kids coming up in our system probably won't understand how good they've got it.”
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...