West Virginia State University’s renovated football facility will make its debut Saturday night when the Yellow Jackets host UNC Pembroke in their homecoming game.
WVSU has a new artificial playing surface, new illumination, new seating and a new name for its football field in Institute.
It’s now named Lakin-Ray Field and it now features an artificial-turf playing surface, LED lights and new bleachers.
The renovated field will also be used by the WVSU women’s soccer team and will be available for use by youth and club teams in the area.
The project was finished ahead of schedule. The first phase was the installation of artificial turf, which was originally scheduled to be finished by Oct. 16 — the date of WVSU’s homecoming game. However, the upgraded turf, lights and bleachers are already ready for use.
“We practiced on it last week and then obviously this week so we got a couple of weeks with it,” WVSU football coach John Pennington said. “The soccer team is using it. That turf coupled with our training facility really is just amazing to have right out in your front door.”
WVSU Athletic Director Nate Burton said the project could have taken anywhere from 45 to 60 days but the installation of the turf took just 32 days to finish and the lights were installed in two days.
“Working with Deluxe Athletics, they said in their 13 years they’ve never seen anything like it,” Burton said. “A number of people were involved and a number of people are to thank for us being able to practice on it before the game on Saturday.”
WVSU will have its first true home game of the season — the Yellow Jackets played two “home” games at University of Charleston Stadium — as it takes on UNC Pembroke at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Burton said the quick completion of the project is attributed to dedication and hard work.
“People worked from sunrise to sundown,” Burton said. “Raynes [& Co.] did the construction work. They were out there, I feel like, 32 days in a row. Shaw [Sports Turf] came in as soon as the site was ready. They were working from sunrise to sundown. Everything just came together.”
Shaw Sports Turf, headquartered in Calhoun, Georgia, has an employee with local ties. Former Marshall Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs Aaron Goebbel is now Shaw’s territory manager for the Maryland and Washington, D.C., areas.
“Aaron is my guy,” Burton said. “He has been instrumental in getting this project [going]. Aaron has stayed on top of things and checked in with me almost daily to make sure everything was going smooth.”
The idea of having a turf field at WVSU is not a new one. Burton said the conversation about changing from grass to turf has been going on for a long time.
“Turf at Lakin-Ray Field has been discussed for 30 years now and it’s something that everyone wanted to see, but we just didn’t have the funding,” Burton said.
Funding for the installation of artificial turf came from a pledge of $1.28 million by the Honey Bear Project, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization created to upgrade athletic facilities at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, such as WVSU.
The Honey Bear Project was created by Willie “Honey Bear” Lanier, a Pro Football Hall of Fame member who played in college at Morgan State University, an HBCU in Baltimore.
“We learned about the Honey Bear Project through [Director of Football Operations] Quincy Wilson,” Burton said. “He reached out to Willie Lanier and the Honey Bear Project and they came up with the funding for the turf itself. When it comes to the lights, the Jacobson Foundation and the Kanawha County Commission donated the money.”
LED lights that flash and change colors are being adopted by larger schools across the country. Schools like Alabama and Georgia use them going into the fourth quarter and now WVSU will be able to do the same.
“If you’ve seen a game at Alabama, that’s what it does,” Burton said. “We have the ability to sync music with the lights, they have the ability to change colors but then also do different strobes.”
Burton and Pennington expressed both excitement and relief now that the field is ready for homecoming on Saturday.
“It’s surreal,” Burton said. “The first time that I saw our student-athletes practice on that field it gave me chills and still gives me chills. Saturday night is gonna be a special night for our athletic department, for our student-athletes and just the West Virginia State community as a whole.”
“You have no idea,” Pennington said about his excitement level for Saturday’s game. “Our players are so excited. There’s the alumni and everybody coming back and the new turf. There’s a night game. [We’re] excited.”