West Virginia complex goes natural

An interesting report by Derek Redd for HD Media out of Charleston, WV, details very well the challenges that go with opening natural grass fields at a busy sports complex:

For the U.S. Youth Soccer Eastern Regional Championships, the Shawnee Sports Complex broadened its horizons — literally.

From last month’s USYS Eastern Presidents Cup at the complex to the current tournament, the field of teams grew from around 125 teams to 260. In nearly doubling the competition field between Shawnee and the Barboursville Soccer Complex, Shawnee had to add a few fields for teams to compete. So the complex opened some of its natural grass fields for the first time after playing solely on artificial turf until now.

Adding natural grass isn’t as easy as just throwing open the gates. Such fields need cultivated and that calls for a different and more involved level of maintenance. The good news is the experience will could to better results with the grass fields in tournaments to come.

“Our fields are in good shape,” said Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, who was key to the development of the Shawnee complex. “Next year, they’ll be in great shape.”

Shawnee opened a full-size grass field for older age groups, plus opened two smaller grass fields for the younger age groups on the outfields of two of the complex’s baseball fields. Those fields have turf infields and grass outfields. Because they’re new, they aren’t mature. Because they’re not mature, they’re surfaces that need plenty of TLC.

“It’s high maintenance,” Salango said. “It’s finicky. You have to make sure it’s cut just right and watered just right and not over-watered and not over-cut.”

How high maintenance? Salango said that if the bluegrass on those fields is maintained at around 3 to 3 1/2 inches and has to be cut down to 1 1/2 or 1 3/4 inches for competition, cutting it down is a process that stretches over several days. “Cutting” may not even be the most appropriate word. “Shaving” might work better, since Shawnee took about a quarter-inch of grass off the top every day until reaching the desired height.

Now put that process to work on 30 acres of grass fields. Shawnee facilities director Katie Arthur said it’s one thing to plan such an undertaking. It’s another to put plans into action.

“When you say 30 acres of grass and you look at it on a plan, you see it and it doesn’t look that big,” she said. “Then, when you’re walking it from front to back, you realize how much of an area you’re covering.”

One day before the tournament, Arthur and another staff member spent about four hours filling holes on the grass fields. She and Salango lauded head groundskeeper Quentin Davis and the rest of the staff for the long hours put in every day before the tournament to get the grass into playing shape. Salango found out exactly how long the process could take when he spelled the maintenance team over a weekend. He said he spent eight hours Saturday and eight hours Sunday on a riding mower.

“We’re all enjoying [the work],” Arthur said. “We want the best playing surface for these teams. We want them to be perfect. We have [artificial] turf and it is perfect and we want the people playing on those [grass] fields to have the same experience.”

The work will continue after the Eastern Regional Championships conclude. Until this past week no one other than Shawnee staff tread on the grass fields. That will be the case again, as the complex will keep close eye on the natural turf to make sure it matures properly and is ready to go for future tournaments.

“I want to get it just right,” Salango said. “I’m not looking just one or two years down the road. I’m looking 10 or 20 years down the road and if you don’t get it right now, it’s not going to be right then.”