Assuming that the high school football season kicks off as planned, St. Albans couldn’t ask for a better way to start the season.
The first two games for the Red Dragons find them opening on a new artificial turf field at archrival Nitro on Sept. 4, then staging their home opener the following Friday on their own new FieldTurf surface, which was completed last week at Crawford Field.
“It’s two rivalry games back to back, and two new surfaces to play them on,’’ said SA coach Nick Watts. “I think it’s going to keep the kids excited. I know we are.’’
Funding for the county Board of Education project was obtained through an excess levy tax rate increase that Kanawha residents voted for in 2018. Board of Education members then approved a nearly $9 million contract with Montreal-based company FieldTurf to outfit seven county high school football fields with artificial turf. Sissonville and Riverside were the initial schools to get fields installed last season, with SA, South Charleston, George Washington and Nitro on the docket this year.
St. Albans was the first to get its field finished this summer, and the gleaming surface was well received by the team’s players and coaches. Watts said the Red Dragons were able to get in four days of practice last week at Crawford Field before their three-week summer practice period concluded. The skill-position players were especially impressed.
“Definitely from an athletic standpoint,’’ Watts said, “you see guys are able to just be more consistent. You don’t have any issues with holes in the turf or the grass, or if it’s harder or softer here or somewhere else. It’s a consistent playing surface for the athletic guys. It helps you be a little bit faster, just from an attitude standpoint.
“Our kids were fired up to get out onto it — just the whole atmosphere from being on the practice field to participating on the game field. In my mind, it’s a big motivator for a lot of our kids to want to practice a little harder than they might have before.’’
South Charleston High School’s field will be wrapped up next. The artificial turf has already been laid at the Black Eagles’ home base, with the end zone-lettering and midfield logo also applied. On Wednesday, workers were scattering a layer of rubber pellets that help keep the turf in place.
“We are almost finished with the actual turf installation,’’ said SC Athletic Director Bryce Casto. “There is probably another three weeks left to finish the site remediation.’’
George Washington’s Steve Edwards Sr. Field looks like it will be completed after that. On Wednesday, the playing field was covered with gravel that goes beneath the turf and other layers. Shawn Wheeler, GW’s athletic director, expects work to be done either by Aug. 17 — the first day of preseason practice for West Virginia high football teams — or perhaps Aug. 24 if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Underwood Field in Nitro appears to be the final piece in the puzzle for Kanawha County’s turf project in 2020. On Wednesday, machinery was still leveling the dirt base on the playing field, preparing for the subsequent layers.
Three of the four county schools getting fitted with FieldTurf are expected to hold their home openers on Sept. 4. Besides Nitro hosting St. Albans, there’s Capital at South Charleston and GW most likely hosting an opponent to be determined. The Patriots lost a Sept. 4 home date with Paul Blazer in Ashland this week when Kentucky decided to delay its regular season until Sept. 11 because of COVID-19. GW is talking with potential opponents to visit Edwards Field. SC then visits St. Albans on Sept. 11.
“It’s always fun to be able to open on your home field against South Charleston,’’ Watts said, “because they’re real athletic and they’re our second-biggest rival next to Nitro.
“I’m still not really sure how the crowd atmosphere will be with whatever [COVID-19] regulations they’re going to place on us. But two new sites with new turf the first two weeks and seeing what our kids can do competition-wise on faster playing surfaces is definitely exciting.’’
Herbert Hoover, the seventh and final Kanawha County school to receive artificial turf for football, is set for a 2022 installation, once the Board of Education has access to the new school site near Elkview. Another county high school, Capital, plays at University of Charleston Stadium, which has long been fitted with artificial turf. Capital is not part of the current football project, but one of the school’s soccer fields will receive FieldTurf.