Herald Photos / Kate Crabtree and Jenn Goad
TURF — Northwestern High School continues to see improvements at its facility. The new fields will serve multiple sports.
Herald Photos / Kate Crabtree and Jenn Goad TURF — Northwestern High School continues to see improvements at its facility. The new fields will serve multiple sports.
As the demand for more athletic offerings increases among middle and high school teams and a need to update aging facilities emerges, 60 percent of Howard County High Schools now have turf playing surfaces on, at minimum, their football fields.

Taylor High School was the first area school to make the switch from a grass football field to turf. The change began in the fall of 2015 with completion in January 2016. 

In the past, only football games would have been played on the grass surface as to not damage the grass and make playing conditions unfavorable or unsafe. Soccer was played on a different field, and the marching band would practice on the sweltering pavement of the school parking lot.

Now, more sports can use the field.

“We get so much use out of that field,” said Taylor High School Athletic Director Steve Dishon. “Our band invites the Santa Clara [Vanguard] band to practice before they compete in the World Championships. That team got to use our field all day. Then we had soccer practice and football practice, and then [Santa Clara] came back and finished the day. If you had a regular field, you couldn’t do that. Your field would be trashed due to all of the usage.”

The students at Taylor High School see more usage out of the football field, and the benefits to the facility and staffing are evident. Previously, a member of the maintenance staff would be designated to mow the football field and soccer field weekly. On game days, the staff would be in charge of painting the field with yardage marks for competition. Now, with the turf designed with all of the markers in place, Dishon said the staff is free to work on other projects around the facility.

“Somebody was giving up a maintenance worker a couple of days a week just to line fields,” he said. “That person now, without having to do that, is able to do any other number of things.”

Dishon said the athletic program has saved a couple thousand dollars in paint alone over the 20 months. In addition to saving money in paint and other supplies, the savings in manpower allocation is the biggest advantage next to the ability to play in adverse weather. He also is able to supervise multiple events in one location instead of overseeing many events at various locations on campus.

“I’m able to run two games by myself,” he said. “For example, we’ll play football from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. for middle school, and then at 7:30 p.m. I have soccer. I can run both of those at one location. I don’t have to have anyone else come in and supervise another game. I can take care of all of that at a central location with great seats. When one game ends, I roll the nets in, and we’re ready to go. Plus, it’s nice for concessions because they can set up for a whole night instead of one game.”

Northwestern High School is one-third of the way to the completion of their turf project. Announced in April of this year, the school is converting its varsity baseball and softball fields to the artificial surface, and the school signed off on the football field last week. Northwestern Athletic Director Dan Armstrong said the immediate impact has been positive.

“Westfield was here, and they’re used to turf. They really liked ours. They said it was really nice,” he said. “We played football [week one], and I asked the kids the next day for feedback. They just raved that our turf is such high quality, all rubber in fill. They don’t even get burned when they slide on it. When we get our baseball and softball in it will be nice because the kids won’t get the burns.”

Armstrong, too, is looking forward to the cost-saving measures the turf surfaces will provide the program.

“While we were going through this process, there was a committee of about 40 people that met multiple months on this. One of the things that I had to do was to project and do an audit on what we spend and what we would spend over a 12-year period,” said Armstrong. “Over a 12-year period, it was about $1.1 million to maintain these 50 acres of grass and sports fields we have here.”

He said that price didn’t include the infrastructure updates needed across the facility, including restrooms, lighting, and weather shelters. 

The day of the August 2016 tornadoes that ripped through Howard County, he said he had a gut feeling that day that something was off, that the air didn’t feel right, so he canceled all evening activities and sent the kids home. Later that afternoon, a tornado passed within a half mile of the soccer fields where there is no shelter for the players and fans to stay safe.

“I started talking in earnest about us needing safety zones out there. We don’t have building at our soccer complex and no restrooms. To get all that out there would cost probably millions of dollars by the time we would build the building and add the infrastructure. I said we needed to think outside the box and consolidate. And that is what we did,” said Armstrong.

The football field can house soccer, just as the baseball and softball fields will be able to do. 

“The goal was to use our fields 10 to 11 months a year versus two months, three months maybe. We maintain a lot not using them very much, and our goal is to use these things,” he said. 

Work on the baseball field is well under way, and even though he only has one multipurpose field now, the athletes are getting the most out of it as possible. Armstrong said Northwestern hosted seven events in about a 25-hour period the first week they were able to use the field.

“To me, these fields are going to be used and used and used. They just walk off and walk on. We could have never done that with our grass, not a chance,” he said. “It takes days to prepare those fields. As much as I like grass, it doesn’t make much sense anymore.”