Whether it's the clang of a bat against a ball or a whistle signaling a corner kick, the sounds of spring sports have been silenced throughout much of the country, as state high school activities associations made the difficult choice — or had it made for them — to postpone or outright cancel the spring sports season.
The Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kan., is home to more than 100 sports fields throughout 39 school campuses. According to grounds coordinator Jody Gill, all of those fields are now dormant.
"The governor has canceled in-person school for the rest of the school year, and the activities association has canceled the spring season, so there will be no trying to get the spring season back up and running," Gill, who last year served as the president of the Sports Turf Managers Association, says of the unprecedented closures. "It is officially over. I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime."
Stay-at-home orders notwithstanding, the district's fields must be maintained. Here's a look at what sports field maintenance is like in a world temporarily without sports.
Just the essentials
According to Gill, spring break is normally a time when the grounds team is preparing sports fields for competition. This year, however, as districts were sending students home for extended periods of time, none of that work took place, and Gill and his team were in video conferences figuring out how to proceed.
"We were working from home, we had a lot of Zoom meetings to talk about things, but we weren't able to come into work to do much at all — all of the crew was kept away, kept at home," Gill says. "Everybody has the same story across the country."
Ultimately, Gill's crews were able to get back to work after being deemed among the small handful of "essential" staff among the district's 2,500 employees. Still, social distancing protocols were put into place, and extra precautions were taken to ensure the personal safety of grounds staff.
"I take pride in that, knowing they think enough of us that we need to continue operations, but they have also given us the whole force of our custodial services department, who came through with all the masks and gloves and cleaning supplies and expertise that we need in order for us to be safe," Gill says. "We were able to put things in place such as coming in at intervals, going through a process of everyone sanitizing their trucks and equipment, and then getting work underway gradually to the point where we're 100 percent operational."
Paul Zwaska, director of education with Middleton, Wis.-based field care supply company Beacon Athletics, says that part of what makes field managers essential staff is the nature of fields themselves. "An athletic field is a living biosystem that needs constant care in order to maintain its health and vigor," he says.
Under normal circumstances, Gill and his crew are able to give more attention to the district's natural grass sports fields. Between mowing, dragging, striping and other duties, the district's grounds team would have enough work on its hands to necessitate the hiring of additional staff.
"If we were business as usual and playing games, we would have another 15 to 20 staff members on board," Gill says. "With that influx of labor, that allows us to focus on more frequent mowing, we would be dragging all of our baseball and softball fields daily, we would have games in all the stadiums, which really is labor-intensive because our crew sets up all of the stadiums for activities. And we also are there. I have one crew member at each stadium supporting the event."
But now? Says Gill, "None of that is happening."
Instead, Gill's lighter staff is tackling its most essential task: keeping the natural grass fields alive. "We are still providing the basic agronomic needs for the fields," he says. "We are fertilizing, applying pre-emergent. The fields that need aeration, we're continuing with that aeration. So, everything that the grass needs, we're providing to maintain health."
Zwaska says that natural grass athletic fields require a "bare minimum" of maintenance activities in order to maintain health and vigor. Among those activities are mowing, trimming and irrigation, as well as fertilization and pesticide application.
At the Blue Valley School District, mowing is a major part of the grounds crew's work during the sports disruption. "We're really all hands on deck with mowing, because we don't want to be in a situation where in 30 days, when our stay-at-home orders are lifted, we have foot-tall grass that we'd have a really difficult time dealing with," Gill says.
Gill's primary goal is to help the district stave off costly renovations or replacement costs that might come if the fields aren't properly maintained. "We are trying to avoid the need for any major renovation of any fields or landscapes or lawn areas," he says. "It would be a tremendous expense for the taxpayers."
Zwaska agrees that this approach — putting in the maintenance effort on the front end — could pay off. "To ignore fields for four to eight weeks would financially cost much more to bring back to playable than if the minimum maintenance had been maintained," he says.
Maintaining sports fields despite cancelations and stay-at-home orders is inherently an act of optimism. In the case of the Blue Valley School District, grounds teams are functioning as though they'll be fully operational again by the end of May.
According to Gill, the district rents fields and facilities to third-party groups as an additional source of revenue. While permits have stopped for now, the hope is that the work currently being done to maintain fields will pay off later when groups such as youth baseball and soccer teams can return.
While Gill says that no sports field manager would ever wish for a situation that results in a canceled season, he admits that the additional downtime presents an opportunity for the natural grass surfaces to regenerate — particularly in high-traffic areas.
"If there's a silver lining here — and it's a stretch to find any — it would be that it does give us the opportunity to grow grass without it being pounded," Gill says. "I see it as an opportunity to get some better cover on some of these areas, such as goal mouths and corner kick areas, that — this time of the year, during games — would really start to get pounded down."
Zwaska says that grounds crews can take advantage of any downtime to strengthen their sports fields. "Aerification, overseeding, topdressing and rolling will greatly improve the health and density of the biosystem at a time when groundskeepers usually don't have time to access these fields in a normal spring or summer," he says, adding that "If you're dealing with ballfields, I would suggest dragging all skinned areas of infields a minimum of once or twice a week to keep any weeds from getting established."
Getting back to normal
As difficult as it might seem as of this writing to believe that things will ever go return to normal, eventually we'll emerge from our homes and reacquaint ourselves with our pastimes and recreational pursuits. Before that happens, however, Gill recommends ensuring that any activity taking place on a sports field be preceded by a safety inspection.
"When they do return, hopefully soon, it's going to be very important not only for us, but for other sports field managers and athletic directors and coaches that they do some safety inspections on those fields," Gill says. "We can't just assume everything is fine, especially if it hasn't been used, or in some cases maintained for the past two weeks or six weeks or whatever period of time."
Rather than recommending any particular inspection checklist, Gill suggests simply making sure a field inspection protocol exists within a sports organization. "It's hard to develop one safety checklist and have it apply to hundreds of fields in different states, because there are different situations out there," he says, adding, "I think it's just important that people do develop that safety checklist and a protocol and a procedure for using it."
Despite the disruption to spring sports at high schools across the country, not everything has stopped. Time continues to pass, the sun continues to shine, rain continues to fall and grass continues to grow — meaning that turf management professionals, facility managers and athletic directors need to have a plan for maintaining their fields.
This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Sports field maintenance remains a priority — even without sports." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.