The Three Musketeers of the Branson Reorganized School District

Known as the show town of mid-America, Branson, Mo., captures the heart of Ozarks hospitality with its focus on tourism. It’s a great place to live, too, with population growth averaging close to 6 percent a year. The Branson Reorganized School District is continually growing as well, and adding sports fields to meet the needs of all those home folk.

Branson Schools grounds staff, from left, Rick Larson, Jeff Williams and Jeff McQueen.

Jeff McQueen is one of two sports turf specialists for the district. The other is Jeff Williams. They work together with Grounds Department Lead Rick Larson, under the direction of Physical Plant Manager Dwight Cutbirth.

The big picture

The district has three different campuses with athletic facilities. The Cedar Ridge campus that currently serves kindergarten through sixth grade was previously the junior high. It has a baseball field, football practice field and cross-country facilities. The fifth and sixth graders are moving to a new building in January of 2008. Sports fields have yet to be established at that site. The current junior high site was the high school until six years ago. It has a 2-acre practice field and a stadium football field surrounded by a hard surface track that serves the junior high football in the fall and track in the spring. That field also hosts the local Boys and Girls Club football games on Saturday mornings.

The current high school site has two practice fields, a softball field, six hard-surface tennis courts and a football stadium field surrounded by a track. There’s a high jump area at one end and a pole vault area at the other end within the stadium. The shot put area is outside the stadium, and discus uses one of the practices field.

The high school sports program includes varsity and JV softball, track, cross-country, tennis and football. Soccer will be added with boys’ varsity and JV starting in the fall of 2008, and the girls’ program in the spring of 2009.

The high school marching band holds their daily practices and weeklong summer camp on one of the practice fields. The fifth and sixth grade football program uses that same field as their game site. The high school cheerleaders hold their practices on the stadium track and field. The physical education programs at all levels use the fields at their sites during the week.

Making it work

Williams is based at the junior high site, Larson at Cedar Ridge and McQueen at the high school. McQueen says, “We take pride in serving the community, as well as the students. We leave the stadium gates unlocked once school starts in the fall until winter moves in to accommodate PE and all the outdoor sports programs. When I came to check the fields Thanksgiving morning, there were about 60 people playing football on the stadium field. It’s just one of the occasional surprises our program experiences.”

The marching band at the end of band camp week on the practice field.

Field use often begins in early April, though active growth and greening typically won’t start until the end of April or early May. The last home football game fell in mid-October this past fall, and the field was still green. That date will move back to the last of October or early November for 2008, so overseeding is planned for the stadium field.

Finding a window for field maintenance procedures is tough with the heavy use. Between all the summer sports and band camps in 2007, on-field activity didn’t end until the first of July. That left about a two-week window before the fall sports programs kicked in.

“With the multiple sites and so much field use, communication is very important. We use e-mail, cell phones and in-person meetings to keep it flowing,” says McQueen. “Rick, Jeff and I communicate daily. Most of the field use activities are coordinated by Athletic Director [AD] Tony Berry. We get a printout of the field use schedules before each season begins. Rick works directly with Dwight to keep abreast of the overall programs and budgets and keeps Jeff and me in the loop. Our AD usually e-mails us with any schedule changes or added events and will contact Dwight or Rick or me directly with special needs.

“Our parents and boosters are very active. They talk with us frequently and when they need something, they’ll just ask us, and we make it happen. They appreciate the job we do, and we get a lot of compliments from them, which is great motivation to keep it up and constantly improve the program.”

McQueen earned his bachelor’s degree in horticulture with a specialty in turfgrass management from Kansas State University and started his career in the golf course industry. After stints as an assistant and then head superintendent, he accepted a position with a golf course construction company. An eight-month temporary assignment in Texas prompted him to quit so he could be back in Branson with his family.

His wife is a fifth-grade teacher who worked in the classroom next to Dwight’s wife (who is now a principal). Having learned of McQueen’s background, Dwight offered him a temporary position renovating the Cedar Ridge football field and a playground field. He then hired him full-time just before that project was completed in anticipation of the field construction at the new high school site. It didn’t take long to hook McQueen on sports turf.

A football game in progress at Branson high school’s Pirate Stadium.

Field overview

McQueen says, “We have 3.5 acres of athletic fields at both Cedar Ridge and the junior high, and 6 acres at the high school. Our grounds department also maintains the irrigation system and the landscape plantings. We handle cleaning and trash removal at the field sites and assist the custodial staff with snow removal. Mowing of the landscape turf is handled by contract mowers.”

The fields at Cedar Ridge and the junior high have a native, heavy clay soil profile. The junior high stadium field has been modified over time through topdressing with sand. A good, sandy loam was brought in from the area river bottoms to construct the high school fields. The profile depth ranges from 8 to 18 inches, depending on the field.

The baseball field was sodded with turf-type tall fescue; the other Cedar Ridge field was seeded with Mirage bermudagrass. The junior high fields were sprigged with Midiron bermudagrass. All of the high school fields were seeded with Savannah bermudagrass.

McQueen says, “Field construction was spread over several years at the high school. The softball field was built seven years ago, and the two practice fields the next year. The football stadium, track and lighting were completed before the field was installed. Fall 2007 was our second season playing on it.

“All the fields have inground irrigation systems, except the junior high football field. It’s equipped with quick couplers so we can set out sprinklers when needed. Both of the Cedar Ridge irrigation controllers are located in the field house. At the high school, the softball and two practice fields are on one controller and the stadium field on a separate controller located on a pedestal outside the stadium.”

Maintenance program

A master maintenance program is developed for each year, but is continually modified to fit field use and weather conditions. McQueen says, “We base our fertilization program on soil test results. Typically, we’ll put down 2 to 3 pounds of nitrogen [N] on the fescue baseball field during the fall and again in the spring. We put down a starter fertilizer on our bermuda fields the first of April and apply 1 pound of N per 1,000 square feet monthly from May through August. This past year, I sprayed biostimulants on the high school football field approximately every two weeks rotating between PBI Gordon’s Launch and Focus and EarthWorks’ Trilogy.

Rick Larson and Jeff Williams paint "B" logo.

“We’re never able to work in all the aerification we’d like to do. I core-aerated the high school fields in early June and worked the cores back into the profile. We’ve contracted deep-tine aeration on the baseball field the past several years and recently purchased a deep-tine aerator. I plan to use it to add one or two solid tine aerations during the season. We have topdressed the baseball field only, using mason sand.

“Our pest control progam follows standard IPM procedures. We apply preemergent weed control each spring and put down a preventive grub treatment on all of our fields. We spot-treat for broadleaf weeds, primarily clover and dandelions, and spot-treat some persistent small patches of nutsedge. We use cultural practices to ward off diseases, but will spray preventively for brown patch, alternating applications of Heritage and Daconil. We also keep Subdue on hand to treat a Pythium outbreak should one occur.”

Primo growth regulator is sprayed periodically on all the bermuda fields to reduce the clippings and spread out the mowing intervals. McQueen says, “If we can mow three or four times during a two-week period instead of every other day, we reduce our fuel use and make a little time for other field work. We have Toro Reelmasters at the junior high and high school and a John Deere 2653 reel mower at Cedar Ridge. We have a used 22-inch walk-behind greensmower that has been raised to cut the baseball infield. We mow the baseball infield at 7/8 inch and the outfield at 1.5 inches during the playing season. We mow the bermuda fields at 1.25 inches.”

The baseball field skinned area was renovated two years ago, working Turface into the existing material. The softball all-skin infield was constructed with 60 percent sandy loam and 40 percent sand with a 50-50 mix of angular and round sands. Both fields are topped with a .5-inch layer of Turface.

McQueen joins Larson and Williams for baseball field maintenance in the spring. He says, “We have our game-day routine so fine-tuned, we seldom need to discuss it. Rick does the mound and infield skin. I do the infield and outfield mowing. Jeff works the bullpen mounds and mows there and general grassed areas, and then works the bleachers and dugouts. Jeff helps me paint the baseball logo.”

The high school practice and game fields have been painted for all practices and games since they were constructed. How, or if, that will change when the soccer programs are added is yet to be determined.

McQueen says, “Our biggest challenge is the heavy field use. We try to alleviate it with aeration and anticipate the new deep tine unit will help.”

To contact the author, e-mail suztrusty@sportsfieldmanagementmagazine.com .