Weather permitting, today is the day the Free State High baseball team will play its first game on its new turf.
In this instance, however, it’s not a forecast for a sloppy field that might ruin the Firebirds’ plans. It’s whether there was enough sunshine between the end of the rainy weather Thursday and this morning.
“(Construction crews) said if we got any kind of sunshine (Thursday), they could start first thing in the morning (today),” Free State coach Mike Hill said. “It’s frustrating that we haven’t had a field to call our own for a month, but we’ve known all along that this could happen. A lot of people have worked very hard on this field to get it to this point, and we’re very grateful to be this far along.”
Free State’s new home needs just a few more hours of work to be deemed complete.
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of turning the pristine image of bright white lines on emerald green turf into a playable surface is the tedious task of working the rubber granules into the turf. That task is done by a machine the size of a golf cart that is equipped with heavy-duty brushes on the bottom which scrub the pellets into the field.
After the turf was installed, the machine was to make two passes over the entire surface to insert the rubber into the turf. As of Thursday evening, about six yards of fair territory remained — down the third-base line — followed by the remaining 20 feet or so of foul territory leading up to the third-base dugout.
The difference between standing on the finished surface and the unfinished portion is akin to standing on infield dirt and then stepping onto outfield grass.
“The payoff is certainly going to be worth it,” Hill said. “In the end, we’ll certainly have, if not the nicest, one of the nicest fields in the Midwest, if not the entire country.”
In addition to finishing the field, there’s still work to be done around the field.
Hill said today’s game against Blue Valley North, if it is played at Free State, would be staged on a field not entirely enclosed by chain-link fence.
The 10-foot fencing on each side of the dugout will not be finished in time for today’s 5:30 first pitch, but Hill said he hoped the rest of the field would be ready.
If it’s close, Hill said moving the start time back to 7 p.m. was a possibility.
“If the indication is that they just need another hour or so to finish up, we’d push it back,” Hill said.
Of course, the possibility also exists that the field won’t be ready at all today and that the game could be pushed to Saturday.
“I really hope we can get out there and play on it instead of just practicing in the outfield,” sophomore Cody Kukuk said. “We haven’t been able to do much more than fielding out here, no hitting.”
Although the fate of the field is left in the hands of the machine that moves at a snail’s pace, the Firebirds have done everything in their power to finish the rest of the facility.
From massaging the new pitcher’s mound — the only natural-dirt surface on the field — to hanging wind screens and tidying up the bullpen areas, the players have put in more than their share of work on the new field, even if it hasn’t involved a rake, hose or wheelbarrow.
“We take a lot of pride in this field,” senior Michael Lisher said. “We’ve put in a lot of work, and it’s nice to see that the hard work is paying off.”
The baseball field at Free State is just one of the many improvements the district has scheduled for athletic facilities at both of the city’s Class 6A high schools.
Lawrence High athletic director Ron Commons said turf installation at the Lions’ baseball, football, softball and soccer fields is nearly finished.
When the work is complete, the Lions’ spring sports teams likely will be able to conduct practices at their new digs.
Commons said at least one game — the May 14 girls soccer match against Free State — would be played on campus this season. But whether that’s on the new soccer field or the new football field — where the turf installation has been completed — remains to be seen.
Commons and Hill expect work on the seating, as well as the concession areas and rest rooms at each school’s new football field, to begin sometime this spring.
As for Free State’s other facilities, Hill said the process of adding turf to the existing soccer complex would begin sometime in April. In the meantime, Free State’s girls soccer team will play its home games on the new football field. In addition, work to add turf to the FSHS softball field will begin shortly after the season concludes in May.