CLOVER — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth story in a series looking at the upcoming Clover school district bond referendum.
Lower maintenance costs, more community use and better accessibility at the district’s largest gathering spot -- for $6 million. That’s the pitch for athletic upgrades from the Clover School District ahead of its March 22 bond.
Athletic facility upgrades are one of five capital projects to be considered by voters as part of a $67 million package. For $6 million, the grass at Memorial Stadium, and one field each at Clover High School and Clover Middle School, will be replaced with synthetic turf. Restrooms and ramps also will be added to bring the stadium into Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.
“At Clover High School, we have 36 teams and over 700 athletes,” said Carroll Hester, high school athletic director. “Nearly 300 athletes of these compete in football, soccer, and lacrosse, with these teams being the ones that that will primarily be using the new fields.”
In a survey conducted last fall, the athletic facility upgrades received 79 percent support from more than 1,800 responses. Only a new middle school scored higher, as more people backed the athletic upgrades than a new elementary school, ninth grade academy and partnership with the Upper Palmetto YMCA.
The district promotes the new surface as safer for athletes than grass. The district states it’s better for year-round use, both by the schools and community. The field replacement isn’t to suggest there’s a problem with the stadium or fields now. Memorial Stadium has three straight statewide awards for football field of the year. Last spring the high school softball field won the same award.
“Their outstanding work will continue on all district fields,” Carroll said of maintenance staff, “and having some turf fields will allow them to spend more time on the remaining natural grass fields.”
Is it safer?
A search of “artificial turf” on The American Journal of Sports Medicine website brings up 399 hits. One study found minor injuries in flag football were higher on an artificial surface than on grass. Another found NCAA football players from 2004 to 2009 suffered 1.39 percent more anterior cruciate ligament injuries on artificial turf compared to grass. Yet another compared Minnesota-based Tartan Turf to natural grass at the University of Wisconsin. That study found turf produces more scrapes and cuts, but grass fields resulted in “significantly more serious sprains and torn ligaments” than the turf.
“The research is all over the place,” said Dr. Alice McLaine, assistant professor and athletic training program coordinator at Winthrop University. “The older versions of the artificial turf, we definitely saw more (injuries).”
Artificial surfaces have been around for decades, with early forms similar to plastic carpet than actual grass blades like most produced now. The newer artificial surfaces seem to show no increased probability of injury compared to grass, McLaine said, citing a 2012 study of natural versus artificial surface impact on National Football League teams. But the newer the product, the less research available on wide-scale use.
“There is not a definitive answer based on the research,” McLaine said.
Studies do show that the type of shoe worn on certain artificial surfaces can enhance or reduce the likelihood of injury. Artificial surfaces can be hotter in the summer than grass, so proper hydration of athletes becomes increasingly important, McLaine said.
In addition to bringing Memorial Stadium into compliance for those with disabilities, access to the field itself is a selling point for the district.
“As the number of teams has increased in recent years, the number of fields and space available for practice and games has not,” Carroll said. “Field space is at a premium. Our fields are in constant use and rarely get any time to rest and recover.”
Sports teams use the fields. So does the high school marching band. As do community and youth sports groups. An artificial surface, according to the district, will allow for more continuous use regardless of season. The district is in its second season offering lacrosse, which Carroll calls a particularly hard sport on grass fields. Within the next couple of years, the high school will field boys’ and girls’ lacrosse at the varsity and junior varsity level.
As the fields have daily use for the marching band, soccer teams, football, lacrosse and other sports, there’s also reason to believe they’ll be used even more. A new state rule, Carroll said, allows for “almost unlimited practice time” for high school teams.
“This unlimited practice time just increases the number of days and hours that fields are being used,” he said. “This is so hard on the natural grass fields. Artificial turf fields would make this new rule more easy to implement.”
The process for community use or reservation of district fields won’t change, though the fee structure may.
A growing trend
Voters approved a bond last year in the Fort Mill School District for synthetic fields at both high schools there. Teams began play on the surface this past fall. Bruce Hulion with the South Carolina High School League said he expects the trend to continue toward artificial fields.
“It’s a domino effect,” he said.
Last year Irmo, Dutch Fork and Chapin all got artificial turf for their fields within the same school district. Brookland-Cayce is building a new stadium with it, and Airport High School in the same district is installing it. River Bluff is the newest high school in the state and built its stadium with a synthetic surface, leaving Hulion to expect nearby Lexington, White Knoll, Gilbert and Pelion to follow suit.
“We are seeing more and more,” he said.
The new fields in Clover will be similar to the surfaces installed in Fort Mill.
Worth the cost?
Clover School District has a maintenance staff of 17 people, three assigned primarily to maintenance and upkeep of fields and grounds totaling 35 acres. Staff won’t be reduced with synthetic fields requiring less maintenance than grass. Instead, they’ll get more to do.
Because the bond includes an elementary school, along with it would come another grass field and running track. An included middle school would mean another baseball, softball, multipurpose and football/soccer field – all grass. Together maintenance would add 10 more acres. And the new synthetic fields wouldn’t be left alone entirely.
“It’s different maintenance,” said district spokesman Mychal Frost.
Those fields still require weekly raking. Most cost savings come, he said, by cutting out fertilizers, watering and other materials for growing grass. The synthetic fields will require 5 inches of gravel, 2 more of padding, carpet, sand and rubber infill before the first faux blade of grass hits the ground. The district projects a 10 to 15 year lifespan for the field.
“A lot of that comes back to how well it’s maintained,” Frost said.
When the field needs replacing, it should cost about half of the initial project as only the top few layers will need re-installation.
The bond also would allow for replaced fencing and facade improvements at the 8,500-seat stadium, last renovated in the early 1990s. Handicap ramps and restrooms will be added both on the home and away sides. Scoreboards will be replaced with “a lot newer version,” Frost said.
“It’s more than just three fields,” Frost said.
John Marks • 803-831-8166