Building more fields at the University of Alabama

PHOTOS COURTESY OF KARLA HUBBERT.

Paul Patterson is landscape, horticulture and athletic turf supervisor for the facilities and operations department of the University of Alabama in Huntsville. That title is an indication of the multiple areas he oversees on the 400-acre campus of the Division II university that currently serves nearly 8,500 students. Along with the athletic fields, he and his grounds department staff of six, as well as a mowing crew of five, are responsible for the general landscape, the trees, shrubs and flowerbeds; pressure cleaning of the walkways, patios, building entry areas and parking lots; and annual parking lot striping and crosswalk repainting.

Paul Patterson mows the outfield during the early spring.

UAH is a growing place, with new construction being an ongoing part of that growth. Patterson becomes involved to varying degrees with the projects, as nearly all affect the surrounding landscape. In 2005, funding became available to tackle the initial stages of development for more on-campus athletic fields. This project, from construction through establishment and long-term maintenance, became the responsibility of the grounds department. Work began in late fall of 2005 and was completed in the spring of 2006.

A small section of the landscape features Paul Patterson and his grounds department maintain.

Building the fields

The concept had been included in the overall strategic plan and a 16-acre site on the southeastern side of campus had been identified as the location for the complex. “At that point, we had one field, a combination practice and game field for soccer,” says Patterson. “Our baseball team practiced and played at Joe Davis Stadium, a minor league facility. Our softball team practiced and played at a city-owned facility. Both teams were cut short on practice with the need to work their schedules around other field use and travel to and from the sites. Building the fields was the first priority, so they could at least practice on campus.”

Construction of the dugouts, bleachers and other physical structures was to be deferred until additional targeted funding was raised.

Patterson says, “We were not satisfied with the original design. I did a lot of research into who the potential contractors might be and what design and procedures we needed to put in place to ensure that the project going out to bid would specify what would be needed to produce the desired results. The contractor selected, ProRain Irrigation Services of Athens, Ala., was experienced in sports field construction and irrigation system design and installation, and brought their expertise to the project.

“My role became that of construction coordinator, working with their personnel on site and ordering and bringing in materials as needed to keep the work on target. The design puts the baseball and softball fields next to each other. During the developmental stage, we were able to expand the project to include a full-size soccer practice field on the same site, giving us 10 acres of new athletic fields there.”

At some point in the past, the site base soil, a sticky red clay, had been topped with material dredged from the campus lake. In addition, topsoil removed during construction of a local shopping center had been spread over the area. Patterson says, “That material was rich black dirt that had been in pasture for nearly 100 years. It all ended up benefiting us. ProRain deep-tilled to a depth of 12 inches, thoroughly mixing the different soils as a base for the softball and baseball fields and the soil profile for the soccer practice field. The soccer field is crowned from the center to each sideline with about a .5 percent slope for surface drainage.

“The baseball field was topped with an amended soil mix of 70 percent sand and 30 percent clay. For the softball field, we used 70 percent sand, 20 percent clay and 10 percent native soil. Both of these fields have a 1 percent slope from the backstop toward the outfield. We do have two subsurface drainage spots, one at the transition of the infield to the outfield and one in the warning track next to the fence. Since we’ll tarp the infield, where most of the play takes place, we don’t need subsurface drainage beneath it. There’s less action in the outfield and sheet drainage there is sufficient to take the water off quickly.”

With the soccer practice field nearly completed and the baseball and softball fields about 80 percent complete, a different funding source allowed for the development of a 2-acre, multipurpose intramural field on the eastern edge of campus. Intramural activities had not had dedicated athletic space previously, using an open area that was maintained as general landscape turf, so this was a very welcome addition to their program.

Both fraternity and sorority housing had been built immediately north of the site. Patterson says, “We were able to recycle the excess soil that had been excavated from that construction into the new field. The area needed additional soil, so we saved both the purchase and transportation costs. It was relatively easy to move the machinery to that site as needed so logistics was not a problem. The site was a flat plane with about a 1 percent slope from one end to another. We were able to match that contour for surface drainage.”

The original soccer game/practice field is an old campus fixture that had been reworked several times over the years. Patterson says, “Its base soil is the region’s native red clay that has been augmented over time with organic matter and aeration, resulting in a decent, fairly well-draining soil. It has a conglomeration of grasses, including Tifway 419, some common bermuda, and some Sundevil, seeded during the last renovation 10 years ago.”

Turf selection for the new fields focused on seasonal playability and long-term maintenance. The baseball and softball fields were sodded with Tifway 419 bermuda. The soccer practice field was seeded with Riviera bermuda. “Baseball and softball have a short fall practice season. Soccer play runs into November here, so we went with the more cold-tolerant variety for that field to keep it growing as late as possible. We do overseed all the bermuda fields with perennial ryegrass. By the time we need to take out the overseeding in the late spring, the short soccer practice season and the softball and baseball seasons are completed. We can keep the green so they look good for use, then spray out the rye with the summer as downtime to bring all the fields back into top playable condition.”

The intramural field was seeded with a mix of DuraBlue and ThermalBlue, bluegrass varieties developed to handle southern conditions. Patterson says, “It’s been a very interesting endeavor here in north Alabama. The grass looks like fescue and acts like bermuda. It came through the grow-in and is doing quite well. All the organized intramural play, from flag football and soccer to ultimate Frisbee, take place in the spring and fall, so the cool-season turfgrass makes sense for that space.”

Seasonal color change-outs are part of the responsibilities of the grounds department.
The new athletic fields on the UAH campus.
Paul Patterson checks out the outfield turf.

Coordinating the program

Patterson has an annual master plan and develops weekly and daily plans from that to make sure all needed tasks are covered. Each day starts with a short staff meeting at 7 a.m. to review what has been completed and set up daily assignments. He says, “I try to be as proactive as possible, but we also operate off a work order system and have a constant stream of requests. I prioritize these, with first attention going to anything that hinders access to a building. Preparation for special events is also high priority. We may need to switch assignments temporarily to concentrate on a specific area or task. It works because our staff is not only knowledgeable, but also flexible and dedicated to producing the best possible results in any situation.”

Maintenance of the on-campus fields has been a learning process for everyone. Patterson’s staff handles the daily and seasonal maintenance program and the mowing because the timing and techniques vary greatly from general landscape turf mowing. “We’ve developed a great working relationship with all the coaches,” says Patterson. “They’re very cooperative, working with us on techniques such as rotating practice drill sites, to reduce field wear and produce top playability. The baseball and softball coaches and teams tackle the majority of the skinned area work themselves, understanding that players that take ownership of their fields not only have a greater respect for their facilities, but also gain insight into how field conditions impact play.”

Summer field use is minimal. The baseball and softball teams only practice as long as they’re in postseason competition. Soccer has a few weeks of camps. That leaves adequate time for post-season renovation and downtime for recovery. It also gives Patterson and his staff time to concentrate of other projects.

This summer brings more construction as the structures are being built for the softball and baseball fields. Patterson says, “General contractors are doing this project, so I’m working closely with them to reduce any impact of that construction on the fields themselves. They’re learning techniques, such as laying plywood over the areas of the field the cement truck will travel, that they haven’t needed to use before. It’s another case of being proactive in an education issue. I’ve found that if you teach people this is how you do it in this instance, and add why it makes a difference, you’ll have a lot of cooperation.”

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