In the five seasons since Branson (Colo.) High School launched a six-man varsity football program, the team has played its games on a former baseball field that has sat mostly idle since the 1980s.
As described by The Colorado Sun, the idle period turned the field to a dusty blend dusty representation of the region’s rough pastureland, dotted with tufts of prairie grass, mixed with rocks and garnished with thistles and cacti. The town of 71 residents tried to improve the field's conditions, with Branson gym classes fanned out across the 80-by-40-yard field and competed to see who could collect the most rocks. Others targeted the field's spiny vegetation, and seeing and fertilization efforts have mostly failed to take root.
“I’ve lost a lot of skin playing on that field, mostly just from how hard it is,” Isaac Provost, the 16-year-old junior who plays wide receiver for the Bearcats, told the Sun. “Getting tackled on dirt is not a pleasant experience.”
Opponents' distaste for the conditions has grown into a competitive advantage of sorts for the home team. “It’s definitely a big mental factor in our favor,” 16-year-old junior quarterback Brody Doherty said. “It’s a big part of our identity that we have such a rough field.”
But the advantage only exists if teams are willing to compete at all. About four weeks ago, as Colorado’s six-man football schools convened via Zoom call for one of its annual meetings to pick all-state teams and talk about scheduling and other matters, one coach veered off the agenda and announced that his team would no longer play on Branson’s home field. He cited safety concerns. Then several other coaches chimed in.
The broadside caught Branson athletic director Brad Doherty, who’s also the quarterback’s dad, by surprise. With no chance to craft any kind of defense, he could respond only that the field had directly caused no major injuries. “Nothing where a kid twisted an ankle or landed on a rock,” the elder Doherty said. “Nothing justifiable to say it’s an unsafe thing. But schools don’t have to play somewhere they don’t want to play. You can’t force them to do what they don’t want to do.”
He understood the concern and, especially with Branson being the new kid in six-man football, didn’t feel he was in any position to press an argument.
“It’s by far the least manicured field we’ve ever played on,” Doherty said. “Every other opponent is in farming country, where they have an aquifer or creek or well they can draw on.”
As bad as the game field might be, Branson’s practice field is worse. The team practices on a dirt patch rather than subject its marginally-better game field to additional cleat traffic that would deteriorate its condition even more. The practice field also serves as parking for the vehicles of visiting fans.
So there’s general agreement that Branson’s football facilities are lacking. But that didn’t take the sting out of the sudden announcement on the Zoom meeting of coaches and athletic directors that schools were finally ready to draw the line.
“We might’ve ruffled a few feathers,” said Granada athletic director Manuel Gonzales Jr. Gonzales, “but it needed to be said and addressed.”
And that’s where Branson stands now — kicking its fundraising efforts into overdrive in a frantic attempt to create a future for football.
Faced with the undesirable alternative of finding some distant, neutral field to claim for future home games, Doherty sought to raise enough private funds to install a synthetic turf field that would be among the first in the state’s southern region to host a six-man football program. Estimated cost: $250,000 — for the field alone.
Doherty immediately corralled resources — mainly students in the K-12 Branson School — and produced a YouTube video that pokes fun at the town's lack of entertainment options. He even includes a scene in which elementary school kids play the role of a school board screaming in horror at the cost of a synthetic field.
The price ballooned to closer to $450,000, when additional items like fencing, goalposts, scoreboard, bleachers, picnic area and an elevated announcer’s booth were added to the equation. The addition of those finishing touches, the group reasoned, would make the project an instant community hub and more attractive to potential large donors.
Organizers have broken the project into three $150,000 increments: private donors; grants and foundations; and school funds, athletes families plus in-kind contributions. The revised budget calls for $350,000 for the field installation.
For overall fundraising purposes, they’ve even broken down the cost to the inch — $125 each, so even small donors can claim a piece of the field — and so far have brought in nearly $58,000.
“When you look at it from the outside, I understand it looks like a giant project that will never get done,” said Adam Lucero, the Bearcats’ second-year head coach. “But when it’s broken down and you look at the details, it’s achievable.”