On Friday, August 19, 2016 the Payson Roundup sports section published an article written by Keith Morris concerning the condition of Payson High School Longhorn Field. Field of Screams by Keith Morris
Morris hammers home the point that the field might not be a good one. Morris writes, “And just two weeks into practice this season, five players were slowed by knee or ankle injuries as a result of the poor field conditions.” If that is accurate then I would think some parents might be upset.
It must be pointed out though, that the field is probably no worse then previous years and it might even be better then some years. At last Friday’s game, the field was in better condition then many times I have been on it. There are fields across the state that are as bad or worse then Payson’s. The field is as playable as it has ever been but it does need help. The article may be a bit embellished but it did what it was supposed to do and that was draw attention to a problem that has long been overlooked. The title might be appropriate for not only the condition of the field but just maybe people should be screaming about why it was never fixed as promised 10 years ago.
It has to be disheartening for Coach Swartwood and his football players to play year in and year out on a field that has limited grass throughout the middle. People can argue all they want but varsity football at high school is the biggest draw in rural communities. Friday night football draws more people then most events. Even the band must beware of dirt patches if they are playing on the field. The stadium no longer has a working snack bar or restroom facilities on the Home side. Payson Longhorn student athletes have been short-changed by not having a turfed field that was voted on and passed by the community in November 2006.
I first arrived in Payson in 1980 and I can assure you that some 36 years later, the football field has not improved but really isn’t any worse than it was 30+ years ago. I will point out that in the history of the field, nobody has been on the field for more games then me. I first officiated football on the field in approximately 1982. Youth football has played there as long as I can remember and I have officiated games on Longhorn field for 30+ years. I also coached on the field in the early 80’s and early 90’s. I officiated middle school and high school football games starting in 1992 and have worked many a freshman, junior varsity, and varsity game on the field. I’m guessing that I have been on the field for over 200 games during this span and probably many more then that.
As long as I can remember Longhorn Field has had its issues. The grass always gave out in the middle of the field and brown patches would appear everywhere and would soon turn to muddy patches when the rains came. By the end of October, there tends to be more brown (mud and dirt) then green. I can remember Coach Terry Nodlinski placing new turf on the middle of the field in the 80’s and I don’t think that worked out so well. The sprinkler system had always been inadequate since it was first installed as many areas of the field would not receive adequate amounts of water during the growing season but that seems to have been remedied. But a total fix was a coming, or so we all thought.
In 2006, Payson Unified School District decided to hold a bond election for 33 million dollars and an advisory committee was formed. According to the Payson Roundup, the advisory committee membership included Craig Swartwood, Rory Huff, Steve Drury, Cari Day, and Kristi Ford. This group helped determine priorities for the bond that included building a new Julia Randall School and incorporating the old rock building into new school district offices and a board room. Part of the recommended 33 million dollar bond that was the inclusion of field turf that was to be placed on all high school athletic fields. This was in the bond language that was overwhemingly passed that November with a 73+% yes vote. School Board Explains Proposed School Bond Including Money for Turf Fields
I can remember the excitement at the high school for the prospect of having “real” fields to practice and compete on. But things changed, and the 2009 school board composed of Rory Huff, Barbara Underwood, Matt Van Camp, Vickie Holmes, and Richard Meyer pulled the plug on having fields to be proud of by voting to eliminate the designated funding in March of 2009. Mr. Meyer had made it very clear that he was not about athletic programs and coaches and his influence may have persuaded others that the district didn’t need to spend the money that the voters had approved for turf. His dislike for Coach Josh Anderson had been quite apparent and I remember after Coach Anderson had resigned to take the head coach position at Dakota State, Mr. Meyer stating at a public meeting in the auditorium that “we” were not going to hire somebody who could be a coach but rather we were to only think about academics in the hiring process. We all know that the school suffered as a result of that thinking. I don’t even remember who we hired in a last ditch effort but it was a disaster. All of that thinking probably played a part in pulling the community backed funding for turfed fields.
When deciding against the turf, school board member Van Camp was quoted, “It’d be a waste of taxpayers’ money to put in fake grass.” (yes this is the same person who thought the town should use tax money to give employees a paid day off for their birthday instead of recognizing the national MLK Day as a holiday.) School Board votes in 2009 to Eliminate Turf on Athletic Fields When the Roundup published the article there were those in the community that got quite upset that the funding had been pulled and some even wrote letters to the editor complaining of the pulled funding. (Any voted on bond money must be used for facilities, grounds, buildings, etc but cannot be used for salaries, adding staff, and so on.)
The Payson Roundup in their attempt to be “fair” allowed School Board Member, Barb Underwood to pen her opinion on why the funding was pulled. In the op-ed she writes, “I also feel a responsibility to the student athletes. I believe that with proper maintenance, and maybe keeping the football team off of the baseball field, the fields can be safe, playable, and something that we can all be proud of.”
“Many steps have already been taken to improve the fields and I believe we will continue to see improvements.” It is all right here and easy to read in the link that I have provided. Mrs. Underwood Responds to Criticism (March 2010) Something we can all be proud of? In reading Mr. Morris’ article, I am thinking that many might not feel that way. Proper maintenance? How about short-sighted decision making?
The field issue was preventable and if people are at risk then the 2009 school board should be the ones held responsible. Remember Frontier Elementary School had been designated 1.5 million from the 2006 School bond for noise reduction and facility improvements. Now mind you one of the tidbits you may not know is that the school board under the direction of Superintendent Casey O’brien used part of the “left over” bond money to provide added repairs at Frontier Elementary School and even installed a new playground and fixed up the parking lot. This all came about in 2010 and in 2011 the board closed the school and eventually sold the school for pennies on the dollar. As Mr. Van Camp, alluded to about the fake grass, that was probably a waste of taxpayer dollars.
My heart goes out to Coach Swartwood and his players. They should have and could have and would have been playing on an outstanding field. Instead the community voted upon funding was taken away by a short-sighted school board and I’m sure those board members do not want to be reminded of a their egregious error. I was talking with a person that helps out the high school baseball team and he was telling me that the gophers have returned to the baseball field. If the fields had been turfed as promised, there would not be a gopher issue.
One of the unintended consequences that came about from the decision of the PUSD school board was Payson would not be considered a site to host high school playoff games. I talked with an AIA in 2010 and his remark to me was that Payson blew it. His comments to me suggested that Payson would have been an attractive site to host playoffs since it is centrally located only if the powers to be had put in a turf field. The playoff games occur every November and we all know that traffic and visitors to Payson drops off during the Fall and this would have brought folks to Payson to spend their money while attending playoff games.
Reading in Morris’s article, we find out that the school district wants to use $50,000 to rip up the field between the hash marks and re-turf that area. (spring 2017) In the meantime, you continue to throw dirt on the grassless spots to make the field more level . Maybe an analogy is appropriate so here goes on how I view the problem.
A deteriorating street gets pot holes so they fill up the pot holes with some kind of mix that may last until the next downpour. The road crew keeps doing this until they decide that the entire area isn’t doing so well and the next step is to rip that up and lay down a section of black top as a solution. So you have the old road, with this large 30 foot by 15 foot patched section. It seems to help temporarily but it never seems to work as a permanent solution. It is like throwing good money away since the road still is uneven and still needs replacement.
Are there other solutions? I think so. The town of Payson recently installed quite possibly the best field in all of Northern Arizona at Rumsey Park. It is a fabulous field and I think that there are few fields better then the one at Rumsey.
Why not use the $20,000 given to PHS for field improvement by the Tonto Apache Tribe, and move all bleachers to Rumsey Park and play games on the best field in Northern Arizona? If it supposedly costs $50,000 to fix the middle of the field, which in my opinion isn’t going to work for long, why not combine efforts with the Town of Payson and play on this great field?
Are there logistics problems? Yes. There are no locker rooms, limited public restrooms, etc at Rumsey Park but if the town is planning on their own bond to build a community center and other recreational amenities, why not build something with dressing room areas that can be used for major sporting events. Since there are no public restrooms or snack bar facilities on the home side of Longhorn Field why not build them at Rumsey. The biggest hurdle would be transporting the teams and providing some sort of changing areas. I get that but it would be better then throwing $50k down the tubes on a field that needs a total rehab and only a temporary solution. The school district would have to pay some for added maintenance since turf does need maintenance and the schools probably use the fields as much as anyone does.
Another possibility would be for PHS to contract with ASU and Camp Tontozona. They have a beautiful field and maybe they could put bleachers around their main field and what a venue. Ok, far-fetched but at least ASU and Payson would have a real connection. (Another one of my just saying thoughts.)
I’m a dreamer but you got to dream big and sometimes go against the wind to accomplish things. But one thing I do know for sure is that come this year’s Payson school board election, we have the opportunity to elect an intelligent young man, who graduated from Payson High School, has a finance background and was the valedictorian of Grand Canyon University, Mr. Shane Keith. He is the best candidate and one who understands finance and is not bought and paid for by those currently in power. (That will be for another blog as we get closer to election day.)
In the meantime, you all can feel good knowing that Longhorn Field is no better or no worse then it has been for the past 10+ years. In reality it might be just a tad better then prior years. The grass that has grown is as green as I have ever seen it. With that being said, it is long overdue to get that field turfed or combine efforts with the town so nobody has to play events on the “field of screams.”