Safety and playability are top priorities

This view of the Elmer Gordon Stadium field shows the field set up and ready for football. The impact of inground irrigation systems on the turf is evident in the green of this field and the soccer game field, which lies beyond the baseball fields.

Organization, communication and a passion for excellence define the grounds maintenance program at Rush-Henrietta Central Schools. The district serves the two towns in western New York State, just south of Rochester, which includes six elementary schools, two middle schools, a ninth-grade academy and a senior high school. There is also an administrative building, a central warehouse site and the operations center, which serves as the headquarters for the maintenance and grounds departments, as well as the bus garage. The maintenance of approximately 300 acres spread across these locations is under the direction of Grounds Department Supervisor John Gaffney.

After earning a bachelor’s degree with a major in landscape development, Gaffney spent a year working for a landscape company before joining the Rush-Henrietta grounds staff in 1982. He advanced to his current position in 1991.

A big job

The grounds department is responsible for all facets of grounds management and the total maintenance of the athletic fields.

Gaffney says, “We have a staff of seven, including me. We do all our own irrigation system installation and maintenance. We also install and maintain the playground equipment at the elementary schools. We maintain our own equipment and handle some of the vehicle repair and maintenance. We do some excavating for the maintenance department. We’re responsible for all the trucking of the school supplies from sites within the district. We handle snow removal with the help of four staff members drawn from other departments. We need to plow too many places during the same time to make it work with just our seven.”

Shortly after Gaffney moved to his supervisory position, sports field safety and playability became his top priority. “A statement by our athletic director at that time put it in perspective: As long as the object of the game of football is to put somebody on the ground as hard as you can, there better be a safe surface to land on,” he says.

The grounds crew may switch from mowing to plowing snow within 24 hours. Left to right: John Gaffney, John DaGama, Don Wheeler, Kent Porter, Jim Farrell, Bill Ladd and Ron Tirabassi.

Sports have always been a huge part of the district’s overall program and, while population growth has slowed somewhat, sports participation continues to increase. “Girls’ softball now has a seventh and eighth-grade team at both middle schools. Girls’ lacrosse extends to all levels—middle school, junior varsity and varsity—the same as the boys’ lacrosse program. That’s in addition to soccer and track for both boys and girls and boys’ football and baseball,” Gaffney says.

All of the elementary schools have playgrounds and multiuse PE field space. The main sports fields are spread between the middle schools, ninth-grade academy and the senior high. There are five softball fields, four baseball fields and 18 rectangular fields all together.

That includes the main high school field of Elmer Gordon Stadium, which earned the STMA Football Field of the Year honors in 2001. That field is now the game field for freshman, JV and varsity football in the fall and boys’ and girls’ JV and varsity lacrosse in the spring. It is surrounded by the district’s multilane running track, so it also hosts the track meets in the spring. Soccer has two separate game fields at the high school that host JV and varsity games. At that site, there are also four practice fields shared by soccer and lacrosse, two football practice fields, two softball fields and two baseball fields.

Gaffney says, “PE classes and all the school teams use the fields on their campus. Practices begin as soon as the fields are accessible in the early spring.

“Many youth league sports and town recreational sports programs also use our fields. The Rush-Henrietta Soccer Club, together with the town of Henrietta, recently built a multi-field complex, which helped reduce use on our fields. Spring league play begins the first of April. School spring sports run up to June first. None of our fields are lighted, so all use is sandwiched into daylight hours. Our teams use the fields first. The youth leagues come in right behind them and are on the fields until dark.

“About 12 years ago, we started diverting summer league play to other sites so we could close use of the high school fields during the summer. We moved our camps to the middle schools and the ninth-grade academy fields, which get less in-season use. That gives us a window to renovate the high school game fields and repair the practice fields, allowing them to recuperate from the intensity of the sports and the greater amount of play at that level. All the fields are back in use by both school teams and leagues by mid-August. Play continues until snow finally closes us down in the winter.”

Field construction is just one of the many special projects the Rush-Henrietta grounds crew tackles.

After the initial grading of the field subsurface, the Rush-Henrietta grounds crew did the rest of the field work in-house.

Installation of the infield mix for the new junior high softball field took place after the outfield turf was seeded and well into the grow-in stage.

Managing maintenance

All of the fields are a clay loam, native soil with a turfgrass mix of bluegrasses and perennial ryegrasses. Annual soil tests are conducted on each game field, and a field-specific fertilization program is developed according to the test results. Gaffney says, “We’ve been doing this for the last 10 years. We’re able to fine-tune nutrient delivery to meet field needs without under or overapplication. We adapt the best performance elements of these programs to a more generalized program for the practice fields, adjusting it annually as well.”

Inground irrigation systems are installed at the three game fields at the high school and the practice field used for boys’ varsity football and lacrosse and PE classes. There is water access for a traveling water canon at the two high school baseball fields and one football and soccer field at the ninth-grade academy. All the irrigation uses municipal water resources.

Crew member Jim Farrell tackles some of the brickwork for the landscape feature installation at Elmer Gordon Stadium.

“Our window for field repair and renovation is the worst time to grow cool-season grasses—June, July and August. We’re also limited on what we can do on the nonirrigated fields. Still, building in that downtime is a great benefit for our program,” Gaffney says.

The high school game fields and main practice field are heavily renovated at the end of their spring sports season. “We core aerify, traveling each field in at least four different directions using a Ryan pull-behind aerator. Then, we cover each field at least twice with an AerWay Shattertine, adding more passes in the heavy-use areas. We drag the cores back in, topdress, reseed and fertilize according to the specific program for that field.

“Our soil organic content was low, so we’ve been topdressing with an organic compost, a brewery waste product. We put down from 30 to 50 cubic yards of material per field, approximately a .25-inch depth. We’ll apply it on the full field or just the center, depending on the wear and overall field conditions. We’ve seen more aggressive rooting, less compaction, better drainage, less divoting and better turf recovery with this program.”

A 70 percent bluegrass, 30 percent perennial ryegrass mix is used for overseeding during the spring renovation. Gaffney says, “The bluegrass takes longer to establish and doesn’t withstand the wear in the seedling stage, so we only use it when there’s sufficient downtime to allow it to take hold. We do occasionally resod in heavy wear areas such as the lacrosse goalmouths. I’m a big advocate of broadcasting perennial ryegrass seed down the center of the field, in the goalmouths and other heavy wear areas during the playing season. We put 50 pounds down every week to keep a good stand of turf. That ‘don’t be shy with the rye’ policy has been very successful for us.”

The sports fields are mowed three times a week during the active growth season to a height of 2 inches. It takes the crew three and a half days to cover the general lawn areas once. They are mowed once every five to seven days to a height of 3 inches.

The finished landscape feature adds one more special touch to the Elmer Gordon Stadium setting. Community members frequently use the track surface.

With the thick, healthy turf on the sports fields there’s not much weed infiltration or insect or disease problems. Gaffney follows a standard IPM program, with continual monitoring, adjustment of cultural practices as the primary treatment option, and use of control products only as spot treatment as needed.

All of the sports fields are painted at least once a week. Gaffney does most of the painting and upgraded to a ride-on unit several years ago. Only the stadium field and one of the middle school fields that serve boys’ and girls’ lacrosse need two different sets of lines. With some back-to-back games now being scheduled, Gaffney will go to two colors of paint for them this season.

Making it work

Even with all the field use, few irrigated fields and the tight field renovation schedule, weather is the program’s biggest challenge. The northern location and lake effect weather patterns influenced by Lake Erie and Lake Ontario bring nearly constant fluctuations. Gaffney says, “We’ve gone from too wet to too dry in two weeks in the spring and from too dry to too wet in one week in the fall. And we’ve gone from mowing to snowplowing in less than 24 hours in both spring and fall. We have to be ready to react at all times.”

Gaffney and Athletic Director Tom Stewart talk frequently to coordinate field use with maintenance needs. Since many of the coaches are also PE teachers, and Gaffney is on the fields every day, they’ve established a steady flow of verbal communications. He’s also developed a two-page written set of field use guidelines with specific instructions for each sport. This goes to all coaches of field sports at the beginning of each sports season. Though the format is concise, the guidelines cover everything from rotating practices to picking up trash.

He says, “The written guidelines establish our policies. I reiterate them verbally, and I’m out on the fields every day to reinforce them. But, the most important component is the respect and pride our students, other field user groups and the community have for our facilities. It leads to excellent cooperation.

“That is reflected in a practice that was started back in the 1960s, when the Elmer Gordon Stadium field was new. Our football teams walked the field from one end to the other immediately after games to replace all the divots. That has become a tradition that our football and lacrosse teams take pride in performing. When everyone sees those players walking the field, it makes a definite impact. It’s a huge bonus to our program that preserving our fields is the cool thing to do.”

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm located in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Special Projects

With little land left for expansion within the Rush-Henrietta School District properties, a great deal of planning is focused on the most efficient use of space. A much-needed new softball field was developed at one of the middle school sites in conjunction with an addition to the existing building. The project’s contractor did the grading. The remainder of the field work was tackled in-house. Gaffney says, “We worked the surface and did the seeding in the fall. We installed the infield mix just before winter closed in. We’ll allow a year for grow-in and establishment, bringing the field into the program for the 2009 spring season.”

Another project taking shape at the high school is giving Gaffney his first opportunity to be involved in the design stage of field construction. It ties a recommendation he’s been plotting for years into a capital improvement project. He’s working directly with the architect in converting two small high school soccer fields to a full-size, soccer-lacrosse field.

He says, “Networking with other sports field managers has been a key part of the design process. I was able to draw on their field construction experiences to more accurately convey our expectations for the new field. Our school teams will be the primary users. I wanted a field that would drain quickly, since it’s much easier to make a field wet than to make it dry.

“We’ll be turning the field layout 90 degrees. We’ll install inground drainage in a herringbone pattern that leads into a bypass system. We’ll install vertical columns of sand running from the subsurface pipes to just below the field surface. We’ll also modify the native soil to improve drainage. We’ll install an inground irrigation system. We’ll seed with a combination of bluegrasses and perennial ryegrasses and allow a year for grow-in. It will be a great asset to our overall program.”