Tom Flynn doesn’t need to look down when navigating the divots and ruts on the field at Old Rochester Regional High School.
“I’ve probably walked every inch of that field,” said the founder of Old Rochester Youth Football and president of the Tri-Town Unified Recreational Facilities (T.U.R.F., Inc.). “I’ve spent most of the last 11 years on that field. I know where all the potholes are.”
While Flynn knows the right places to step to avoid a twisted ankle, he and many others in the Tri-Town community, can’t sidestep the need for something to be done.
“It’s been an issue that we’ve known for a while,” said Flynn. “You’ve got all the high school teams using it, Pop Warner using it and youth lacrosse using it. It’s a community hub and it’s taken its toll on the grass fields.”
“If you ask any South Coast Conference coach, they’ll tell you ORR has some of the worst fields,” said Old Rochester athletic director Bill Tilden. “We’re probably in the bottom 20 percent in the state.”
A quick look across the all-purpose stadium field, which is home to ORR’s football, boys and girls soccer and boys and girls lacrosse teams, shows uneven ground, holes and large patches of dirt.
“By our season, the spring season, the field is borderline embarrassing,” said Old Rochester girls lacrosse coach Scott Tavares. “When you have a big game and another school comes in, you’re just embarrassed by the field conditions. It’s 50 percent grass and 50 percent dirt.”
“They’re in pretty rough shape,” said Old Rochester football coach Justin Kogler. “To be honest with you, most opposing coaches will make comments about the fields and how rough they are.”
The poor conditions create an unsafe playing surface and can get even worse when mixed with rain or other elements.
“The bottom line is that at any moment this fall, a referee or official could walk on the field and see the dangerous conditions and cease play. And play will not be continued until it’s rectified,” said T.U.R.F. board member and Old Rochester parent Hal Rood. “We are grabbing a megaphone and making sure everyone understands there has been to be a sense of urgency because kids are going to get hurt.”
So how did it get this bad?
Just imagine the wear and tear from more than a decade of overuse.
The last time the fields at Old Rochester received an upgrade was in 2001. Since then, they’ve not only serviced the high school teams, they’ve seen the addition of youth football and youth lacrosse programs.
“In the past 20 years, the Tri-Towns haven’t added any recreational space,” said Rood. “In that time you had a youth football league start and a youth lacrosse league and now a second youth soccer league.
“There’s been an explosion in participation. Kids are playing multiple sports. You have kids on the fields all year round. The fields at the school don’t have a time to recover.”
During the fall, the all-purpose field takes a pounding with a full slate of boys and girls soccer games throughout the week, Friday night football and Pop Warner action on Sundays.
“We’re way over on usage. That’s why the fields have gotten to this point,” said Tilden. “But what are you going to do? Tell youth football they can’t play on the field. You’ve got to find a way to get those youth groups on it.”
In a study of 2016 usage of ORR’s main athletic field by Kaestle Boos Associates, Inc., high school and youth sports combined for 1,040 hours. That’s 440 hours over the acceptable time for a grass field, according to T.U.R.F.
“It just makes a mess of everything,” said Kogler. “Later on in the season, the middle is completely dirt. It’s hard for the quarterback to grip the ball because the ball is covered in dirt.”
Kogler said he feels the field conditions can impact the final score.
“We were in a situation a few years ago, it was pouring out and there were puddles on the field,” he recalled. “There were puddles of standing water on the field during the game against Voke. It was ugly.
“When the field gets wet, it can totally change the outcome of the game. Some of the kids have a hard time of keeping their footing.”
While Harry Smith tries not to let it impact his play, in the back of his mind, the senior running back knows where the rough spots are on the football field.
“In the game, you’re not thinking about it, but you know,” he said. “It’s bad, but you get used to it after a while.”
Tavares said a few times this spring, he chose to play some schools on the road twice on turf fields instead of having home lacrosse games.
“It’s almost like a disadvantage of playing at home, especially in our game,” he said. “It’s actually detrimental for us to play on our field. When we play on a turf field, we play faster and we play cleaner.”
Tilden said upgraded facilities, including two turf fields, could take ORR athletics to the next level, especially at the state level, where teams like field hockey have struggled to make deep runs.
“Their field is probably the worst of all of them,” said Tilden of the back corner field that field hockey competes on. “The reason that they cannot advance in the tournament has a lot to do with their field conditions. All the top teams are playing on turf so they’re outmatched.
“People always see us as a threat in the tournament, but with better facilities, we’d be able to go further and we’d be able to roll out more state champions. We’re not quite there yet because we play on such poor surfaces now.”
That’s scary considering the school year Old Rochester athletics had — 13 South Coast Conference championships, four All-State individual champions, two divisional state titles, one state finalist, one New England champion and one All-American.
“You look at athlete of the year or player of the year, we had more than half a dozen,” said Tavares. “We dominated in the area, but if you look at our facility it doesn’t match up with the quality of athletes we are producing.”
Danny Renwick, an All-American in the winter, was a New England champion in the spring despite training on a track that is well past its shelf life. The six-lane track also doesn’t meet current standards of hosting a championship meet.
“The championships are mostly on eight-lane tracks,” pointed out Tilden, who is also a track coach at the school. “There are huge cracks on the track. It’s beyond its lifespan by four or five years. The asphalt underneath the rubber needs to be torn out and started over again.”
Also, the goalposts, which are straight uprights, are not up to current standards, which require arching uprights for new fields.
“We’ve had great success with the youth programs and great success with the high school teams and great success in the community,” said Flynn. “We have to have a great facility. That’s the part that is missing now.”
Old Rochester’s dire playing conditions have prompted several private citizens to form T.U.R.F., a non-profit group focused on transforming the run-down space into a state-of-the-art facility.
Behind some grassroots fundraising, T.U.R.F. has conducted studies on the current conditions of the fields and hired engineering firm Kaestle Boos Associates, Inc. to draw up a master plan for the “Tri-Town Athletic Complex,” which would service not only the high school, but youth and adult leagues.
“It’s not a high school project, it’s a community project,” said Flynn. “The fields are physically located at the high school, but it’s the entire community using it. That’s how we’re approaching it. It’s going to be a win for all three towns.”
The $4.9M plan features two artificial turf fields, a new, expanded eight-lane track, two natural grass fields with irrigation, dedicated baseball and softball diamonds, spectator seating for the track and the multi-use field, LED field lighting, new goalposts, re-fencing of the tennis court’s back wall, a field house with bathrooms, concession stand, ticket booth and covered press box.
With a green light from Old Rochester Regional District School Committee earlier this year, T.U.R.F. is now looking for support from the Board of Selectmen in Marion, Mattapoisett and Rochester in hopes of getting this proposal onto a ballot and passed in all three towns.
“They’ve charged us with bringing this to the towns and moving this project forward because they see the need to,” said Rood.
“This is a project that is going to be transformative for the Tri-Towns,” said Flynn.
With support from a group of Founder’s Circle donors over the past 18 months, T.U.R.F. has funded the initial analysis of the facility and spent approximately $10,000 for the master plan.
“We have a motivated group of citizens,” Rood said. “We’re expecting the towns to step up with us.”
For this field of dreams to become a reality, the three communities must come together.
“The success of it relies on community involvement,” Flynn said.
Rood said, “All three towns have to share into this investment.”
Rood estimates the total proposed project cost per town at $1,670,000, which also includes the purchase of maintenance equipment to maintain the synthetic fields and yearly safety testing of the fields.
“That is why we moved to the area — the quality of life and expectations,” Rood said.
So is turf the answer for Old Rochester and the Tri-Towns?
“I love nice grass fields. There are a lot of schools that have nice grass fields, like Apponequet and Seekonk,” said Kogler. “The problem with us is basically every team uses it. It’s overused.
“If you’re on a turf field, you don’t have to worry about that. It will make for a lot cleaner of a game. There’s less of an injury risk. I’m all for it.”
“I would say turf is the way to go,” said New Bedford High athletic director Tom Tarpey, whose programs have access to Keith Middle School’s turf field.
Tarpey said there are many benefits to a turf field.
“The big thing would be the weather. You can play in any type of weather. Secondly, the maintenance of the field is minimal. You also can play different sports on the field. It just makes sense.”
GNB Voc-Tech athletic director Ryan Methia said the higher upfront costs are worth it.
“You’re paying more money up front for the turf, but you’re saving more money on maintenance,” he said. “You don’t have to water it, cut it, seed it.
“You’re going to have less twisted ankles. You always have a nice flat surface to play on. You don’t have to worry about footing and slipping. It’s always a different game over on turf. It’s a lot better to play turf.”
Rood estimates the projected revenue of field rentals to make back 25 percent ($105,000) of the yearly annual payments ($420,000).
“There is no question that this is a revenue generator if our design goes through,” Rood said. “What public project you can point to where 20-40 percent can be paid off with revenue generation? We really are working to help the towns see the vision. It’s innovative and it’s different.”
Methia can vouch for the high demand of turf fields in the area.
“There are a lot of people that want to use our facilities,” he said. “There’s a lot of demand to use our field.”
Outside of high school and middle school athletics, T.U.R.F. believes the new facility would benefit ORR Youth Lacrosse, ORR Youth Football, Marion, Mattapoisett, Rochester Youth Soccer, Mattapoisett Track Club, Mattapoisett Community Tennis Association, adult and premier sport organizations and community track users.
“My kids are probably never going to play on the new fields,” said Rood, whose son, Brett, is a junior at Old Rochester. “I just feel strongly this needs to be done. I can’t ignore what is happening. I want to leave this facility better than we found it.”-by Laurie Los, South Coast Today, @LaurieLosSCT