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Artificial turf starting to grow on local schools

King George High School football coach Jeff Smith was a victim of what he calls the “old artificial turf.”

He was playing an away football game for Ferrum College when his foot got stuck on the turf, which he said was like carpet on top of concrete. As he was hit, his body twisted but his foot stayed where it was, causing a knee injury that required surgery at the end of the season.

But Smith said he’s not worried about that happening at King George High School, the first school in the Fredericksburg area with an artificial turf field. The modern turf is just like real grass, he said, and hasn’t contributed to any major injuries in King George.

“It’s the greatest thing, not only from just a football coach’s standpoint but from a community standpoint,” said Smith, a 1989 graduate of King George High. “ This looks like a little college. Friday nights, when people come in, it’s a great atmosphere, and it has a lot to do with the turf.”

Now, about two years after the completion of King George’s $3.6 million football stadium, school systems in Stafford and Spotsylvania counties want to follow suit.

Workers are currently installing artificial turf on football fields at Brooke Point and Stafford high schools at a total cost of about $1.48 million. Those fields are expected to be finished by the end of the month.

And in November, Spotsylvania voters will decide whether to borrow up to $141.7 million for schools projects—including $5 million for artificial turf at all five high school football fields.

The school system hopes to put turf on one field per year, starting at Riverbend High in 2017 and ending with Spotsylvania High in 2021. Officials estimate the cost at $1 million per field.

Supporters of synthetic turf say it requires a lot less maintenance than grass and can be played on regardless of the weather. FieldTurf, the popular brand used in King George, has been installed at about 45 high school fields in Virginia, a spokesman for the company said.

“It seems to be a growing trend,” said Mike McCall of the Virginia High School League.

But the surface has its share of detractors, including a group of top female soccer players who are protesting a plan to use artificial turf at next year’s World Cup. Those athletes believe grass is safer.

Locally, Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors Chairman David Ross and others say they think turf is too expensive.

“I’m completely against spending $5 million dollars on artificial turf, which may cause more injuries to our students, when we presently have beautiful grass fields and a very uncertain economy,” Ross wrote in an email.

TURF AND INJURIES

Jay Williams, a professor for Virginia Tech’s Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise, said there is no proven link between turf and increased injuries. In a lot of cases, injury rates are lower on turf, he said.

“I’m certainly not willing to say that turf is safer than grass, but there’s no evidence” that it is more dangerous, Williams said in an interview.

Modern turf has more give than the old AstroTurf fields and may even reduce stress on knees and ankles, he wrote in a study.

A 2013 article published in the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons said the effect of artificial turf on injury rates is not fully clear.

Recent data indicates that professional athletes may sustain more injuries on turf, the article states.

But the report also cites a five-year study of eight high school football teams in Texas that found that fewer “severe injuries” occurred on artificial turf than on grass. Overall injury rates were similar on the two surfaces.

Players were more likely to get skin lesions and muscle strains on artificial turf, the study of Texas high schools found. More severe injuries such as head trauma and ligament damage occurred on grass.

That study probably wouldn’t comfort former Massaponax High School football star Vinny Mihota, who last year broke his foot playing on a turf field at Albemarle High School. He said his foot got stuck in the turf as he attempted to change directions to block a pass.

Mihota, who now plays for Virginia Tech, had to sit out the rest of his senior season.

His father, John Mihota, says his “gut feeling” is that his son wouldn’t have suffered the injury on a grass field. He said he thinks the county’s existing Bermuda grass fields are fine.

“They’re resilient; they don’t tear up like the old ones did,” he said. “I like the way they are right now.”

Most high school and college athletes prefer a nice natural grass field over turf, said Williams, the Virginia Tech professor.

Turf can be more tiresome to play on, he said. And it’s definitely hotter, making dehydration more of an issue.

“The only con that I can think of is when it’s hot, it’s hot,” said Jackie Gover, 19, a former field hockey player at King George High. Overall, she said, she’s a fan of turf because the game pace is a lot quicker.

COST-EFFICIENT

The “third-generation” artificial turf that was established in the late 1990s is practically waterproof. Rain filters through the synthetic turf’s rubber pellets and sand base into a drainage system.

That makes life easier for athletic directors, who often must scramble to reschedule games after it rains. In fact, Courtland and Mountain View high schools moved a recent scrimmage to King George’s turf field after a hard rain.

King George High athletic director Alex Fisher estimates that the school collects up to $10,000 annually in rental fees from the turf field.

Synthetic turf is also appealing to athletic directors because it can take more abuse than grass. Locally, fields are used year-round for a variety of sports, such as football, soccer and lacrosse.

“The usage you get out of an artificial turf field is much more because you can play on it nonstop,” said Shawn Hockaday, the Spotsylvania school system’s director of maintenance.

A turf manufacturer estimates that the price per hour of play on grass fields is more than three times that of synthetic turf, even though turf has a much higher up-front cost. Noncommercial entities have released similar findings, according to the article in the Journal of American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Darren Gill, vice president of marketing for FieldTurf, said the company has installed 7,000 fields nationwide, including at an estimated 2,500 high schools.

The company is currently installing turf on the fields at Brooke Point and Stafford high schools.

“We wouldn’t have 7,000 installations if there wasn’t a benefit on the cost front,” Gill said.

Upkeep costs are about the same for the two surfaces over a 10-year period, Hockaday said, though he said artificial turf takes fewer man-hours to maintain. Synthetic turf must be disinfected and sprayed with fabric softener to reduce static.

It lasts an average of 10 years and costs about $200,000 to replace, Hockaday said.

TOO EXPENSIVE?

Despite the benefits of turf, many people have a hard time getting past the cost.

Ross, the Spotsylvania supervisor who opposes artificial turf, said he knows of a private school that recently installed Bermuda grass on a field for $35,000.

Spotsylvania last installed a Bermuda grass field in 2007–08 at Massaponax High School for $21,324.

Opal Stroup, a member of the Spotsylvania Democratic Committee, said millions of dollars for artificial turf “seems like an awful lot of money.”

“I’d rather spend it on education than sports,” said Stroup, who noted that she was not speaking on behalf of the political group.

Meanwhile, Stafford is paying for the turf fields at Brooke Point and Stafford high schools with cash proffers, which is money from developers to help offset the impact of additional homes on schools, roads and other infrastructure.

But Spotsylvania officials say they wouldn’t be able to earmark cash proffers for the proposed artificial turf fields. A spokeswoman cited a revision to state code last year that says the proffers must be used to expand facilities, not just improve them.

Stafford spokeswoman Cathy Vollbrecht said artificial turf is an expansion because it can be used more often and by more people than grass fields. She also noted that Stafford High is being rebuilt and Brooke Point is being renovated to increase the capacity of each school.

“So there is a rational nexus between the expanded capacity of the school and the artificial turf upgrade,” she wrote in an email.

Stafford plans to put artificial turf on its three other high school fields—starting with North Stafford High in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2015—over the next eight years, according to the school system’s capital plan. Scott Horan, the division’s assistant superintendent for operations, said those dates are not set in stone and will likely change.

In Spotsylvania, voter passage of the $141.7 million bond issue for schools doesn’t mean the turf fields are a done deal. All of the projects must subsequently be approved by the Board of Supervisors.

“This is not a blank check,” Supervisor Chris Yakabouski said of the bond issue at a recent meeting. “This isn’t just giving your kid a credit card and saying go have fun. It still does come back for individual votes on individual items.”

‘FEELS THE SAME TO ME’

Some of Spotsylvania’s high school football players aren’t in any rush to play home games on synthetic turf. Riverbend High senior running back Zac Sims says he thinks he runs faster on grass.

“I feel more smooth, more free-running on grass,” he said. “Plus, it seems like every play you have to pick little [rubber] pellets out of your shoes” on turf.

Even so, he said he knows a lot of guys who enjoy playing on turf and that he would be fine if the school changed surfaces.

Courtland High junior running back George Cheetham said he’d rather compete on grass, but that he doesn’t strongly favor one playing surface over the other.

“For me, I can’t really tell a difference whether I move faster on grass than turf,” he said. “It kind of feels the same to me, to be honest.”

Asked whether he wanted an artificial turf field, Massaponax High head football coach Eric Ludden replied, “I think so.”

“You have bad weather, especially later in the season, and you’ll be able to play,” he said. “It’s a little more slippery, but it’s not like mud.”

King George High football player Daniel Habron, a senior, says he loves the school’s turf field. All of the players have endured a little turf burn, but he says the pros outweigh the cons.

“For a player, it’s one of the best opportunities you can have, especially if you’re looking into going to college football,” he said.

On a recent morning, King George’s football team practiced on its turf field while the cross-country team worked out on another part of the facility. Next up was field hockey practice.

“This is something I never thought King George would ever have,” said Smith, the head football coach. “The biggest thing is trying to share it with everybody. Everybody wants a piece of it.”

Staff reporters Taft Coghill Jr. and Vanessa Remmers contributed to this story.

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402

jbranscome@freelancestar.com

 

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