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Teams tussle over playing on solid ground
Some would rather wait or move to turf than clash in the mud

By Josh Barr
Thursday, December 10, 2009

At one high school football playoff game last weekend in Virginia, a kick returner dropped the ball and was unable to locate it in the chocolaty mud, allowing the opponent to recover for a turnover. At another site in Maryland, parents volunteering to help make a field playable dumped two pallets of mulch on the surface in a last-ditch attempt to soak up water and not leave things a squishy mess. It didn't work.

Field conditions have been a recurring topic of discussion in both states as the high school football season draws to a close with Saturday's Virginia championship games -- Maryland finished its season last weekend. Last weekend's rain and snow only intensified the growing debate: Should important playoff games be played on premium fields, especially those with artificial turf?

With plenty of rain and even an early snowstorm, high school fields have taken a beating this fall. Unlike professional and college stadiums that have dedicated grounds crews and are used just a few times each season, high school stadiums host games in multiple sports, sometimes are open for community use or gym class and often are cared for by coaches or athletic directors.

"People say football is a game that is supposed to be played in all conditions," said Lake Braddock Coach Jim Poythress, who has been on every side of the discussion thus far this postseason as his team prepares for Saturday's Division 6 title game against Thomas Dale of Richmond. "But in the NFL, fields drain, they're not used by everybody and their brother and it's covered. In high school, it becomes a big puddle, used by everybody."

Poythress moved his team's opening playoff home game to an artificial turf field and was upset when W.T. Woodson insisted on hosting the Northern Region final at its school stadium. Then, this past weekend, Lake Braddock's state semifinal, scheduled for Saturday at Battlefield, was moved to an artificial turf field at Liberty on Monday night.

The Bruins survived, 27-24 in overtime, and Poythress said the inconvenience was worth it -- although he did mind having two fewer days to prepare for the first state final in the Burke school's 37-year history.

While Poythress was pleased, Massaponax officials seethed even before their 23-20 loss at Stone Bridge in a Division 5 semifinal this past Saturday. After arriving in Ashburn, Massaponax's athletic director and principal told their Stone Bridge counterparts they thought the field was unplayable.

Stone Bridge athletic director Dave Hembach said it was logistically impossible to move the game to an artificial turf field in Fairfax County and that he felt the surface was playable. Hembach added, however, that had it been the regular season, the game would have been postponed again. Ultimately, it was up to game officials to decide whether to play.

Massaponax, which moved its home playoff game the previous week to Liberty, subsequently lost four fumbles -- including the kickoff when its returner could not find the ball in the mud -- in the loss.

"That was inexcusable to let that game be played at the mud bowl," said Massaponax athletic director Jim Manchester, who has tried contacting Virginia High School League officials to voice his complaints and try to change policies for next year. "I told them I would not ever play a game under this field condition. The field was just horrible, it should never have been played on."

Similarly, two weeks ago, Sherwood Coach Pat Cilento wanted to move its Maryland 4A semifinal game against Old Mill to an artificial turf field. The logistics of moving the game, however, forced the Warriors to stay home, resorting to the use of mulch and a drying agent in bulk quantities on the field.

For the state finals, the field is not an issue. Maryland reserves M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore for its four games, while Virginia spreads its six title games around three larger venues with well-cared-for fields: the University of Virginia's Scott Stadium, Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium and Salem City Stadium.

It is not financially viable to hold more games at those sites, but with a growing number of schools moving to artificial turf stadiums -- an estimated 20 at suburban Maryland and Virginia public schools -- proponents want to hold more games on turf fields. Already, the Northern Region Council has discussed having alternate sites in place next year for schools whose fields are in poor condition during the postseason.

"I certainly think we'll continue to look at it and discuss it," said VHSL executive director Ken Tilley, aware of criticisms around the state following last week's games.

"There is no question if you had a preference, if you could do it, you would certainly consider a turf field. But how many turf fields are there? Where are they located? Are they going to be able to accommodate the schools that are competing in those games?"

Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association executive director Ned Sparks said the topic will be examined when his organization's football committee meets in January. Sparks did not want to comment on the issue before those meetings, but acknowledged the benefits of playing important games on better surfaces, though there would be logistical challenges.

"Moving to a turf field does make some sense," Hembach said. "But I feel it takes some of the football game away."

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