High demand for growing sport

Photos courtesy of Maryland Heights Parks & Recreation Department.

Lacrosse came to Sportport in a big way in the spring of 2007, as the Metro Youth Lacrosse League moved its rapidly growing program to the sports complex. Originally developed as a soccer complex in 1999, Sportport is a 95-acre facility owned by the city of Maryland Heights, Mo., and operated by its parks and recreation department. By the spring of 2008, the league brought over 900 lacrosse players, boys and girls ages eight to 13, to the Sportport fields.

The Sportport basics

Twelve full-size, lighted, natural grass fields fill the front section of the complex. Toward the back of the complex are the non-lighted, natural grass fields. One is a designated regulation-size cricket pitch, and the layout of the other 5 acres of field space is changed as needed for rugby, soccer and lacrosse.

George Morche Jr., the city’s superintendent of buildings and grounds, says, “The 12 fields have a 6 to 10-inch sand cap over the compacted subsoil. They do have a full irrigation system, but there’s no inground drainage. The fields are crowned with a 1 to 1.5 percent slope that starts at the subgrade and extends throughout the sand layer. Originally, all the fields in the complex were seeded with a cool-season mix of tall fescues and perennial ryegrasses. We’ve switched about half of the sand-capped fields to Riviera bermudagrass and are looking at going that route for the rest.”

For the changeover, the existing turf was cut short and sprayed with Revolver to kill off the fescues and ryes. Morche says, “We had a little bermuda that came in from aerating that we didn’t want to take out, so we didn’t apply glyphosate. We used our spike-tooth seeder to seed the Riviera right into the stubble, and it worked very well.”

This Sportport field is lined for both soccer and lacrosse. The lacrosse lines are in red. Both soccer and lacrosse teams earn the opportunity to play on the championship field.

The fescue-rye native soil fields have the sandy-gumbo profile common along the river, with no inground drainage or irrigation system. Morche says, “We use a big gun irrigation water reel as needed for these fields.”

Field use

At Sportport, the season starts as soon as weather allows in March and runs through November. Lacrosse starts in late March and goes into early June. The majority of soccer play is concentrated in the spring and fall, but with camps and select team action, summer field use is escalating.

Originally developed for soccer play only, Sportport is now a multiuse facility.

Morche says, “We average 200 to 250 soccer games per field. When lacrosse is added, most of the fields get about 300 games or on-field sessions annually. Along with the youth lacrosse league, we get quite a bit of high school play as most area schools now have teams, but few have fields to accommodate them. We also have some college games here, including a six-team weekend tournament.”

Sportport has one of the two designated cricket fields in the area. Curt Riek, Sportport manager, says, “We lease the field to a 10-team league that plays all day every Saturday and Sunday. We only use it for soccer or lacrosse four or five times a year, when a major tournament requires all of our field space. We’ll reconfigure the open, unlighted fields for rugby and as overflow fields for soccer and lacrosse.”

Spread the wear strategies

The key strategy is to limit the number of games and practices per field and juggle the field use patterns to spread the wear.

Morche and Riek research the impact when adding sports to the program, such as comparing the different field layouts for men’s and women’s lacrosse to soccer field use. In both configurations, the goal on a full-size lacrosse field is in the same area as the penalty kicks on a soccer field, so with the two sports in play, wear in this part of the field is extremely high.

Morche says, “We were concerned about adding so much lacrosse play because of this, but we found this pattern only becomes very pronounced from the more aggressive lacrosse players, high school aged and up, who do a lot of cutting. The younger players, who are the majority of our field users, are lighter and less aggressive, so they don’t do as much damage. So, overall, as long as we keep spreading the activity, the mix of sports has been a good one for us.”

With soccer and lacrosse both vying for space on the lighted fields during the spring, Riek keeps at least eight or nine of those fields set up for both sports. He says, “The first season, we painted triple lines to put both soccer and boys’ and girls’ lacrosse on the same field. We found the process of using three colors of paint more time-consuming, and it was too confusing for the players. So, now each double-duty field is designated for either boys’ or girls’ lacrosse, with the soccer lines painted in white and the lacrosse lines in red. When the lacrosse schedule is heaviest, we’ll channel more of the soccer games to the fields lined only for soccer, to balance out the play and spread the wear.”

Once the initial layout is set for the front fields, field painting is scheduled to maintain them. Riek says, “We use Primo in the paint to extend its life and hope to reduce painting to every other week for each field. Because of the daily use and the number of games on each field, we’re usually doing some painting at least two or three days of every week. If we have a field starting to show wear from two sport use, we can switch it to soccer only and paint that lacrosse layout on one of the other fields. While evening play is confined to the lighted fields, weekend play and some of the earlier weekday play can be shifted to the unlighted fields when necessary.”  

Left to right: Curt Riek, Sportport manager; Becky Klotzer, concession manager; and George Morche, superintendent of buildings and grounds, gather on one of the Sportport fields. The Sportport maintenance crew (from left): Brandon Kammeier, Rich Crouch, Greg Kleffner and Dave Becker.

Field maintenance

The aggressive growth of the bermudagrass fields during the hot, humid Missouri summers results in much faster recovery than that of the cool-season turf. Those fields are mowed twice a week at a 7/8-inch height using ride-on reel mowers. The fescue/rye fields are mowed once a week at a 2-inch turf height with ride-on rotary mowers.

Morche says, “We do overseed the bermuda with perennial ryegrass to help protect it for fall and early spring play. By using the spike-tooth seeder, we don’t have to prepare the surface, overseeding directly into the bermuda at a rate of 10 to 15 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Our springs are typically cool, with only a few hot days, so we do use Revolver to take out the rye for the transition back to bermuda. That’s usually about mid-May, but was around the first of June this year.”

The goal is aeration once a month because the level of play quickly compacts even the sand-capped fields. The problem is finding the time to work it into the schedule. Riek says, “We don’t have a spike-type aerator, so we pull cores and, since we don’t want them on the surface for play, we need to drag them back in. So, we cycle through, hitting the fields that most need attention first.”

The sand-capped fields are a great advantage for quick drainage, with play usually possible within three to four hours of a major rain event—but, they also need more frequent irrigation and fertilization. “We apply 1 to 1.5 pounds of nitrogen (N) per 1,000 square feet to the bermuda right after green-up to speed its recovery, then time applications to keep steady growth,” says Riek. “We apply .5 to 1 pound of N per 1,000 square feet to the cool-season fields approximately four to five times during the growing season.”

While most of the bermuda comes back on its own, they’ll again use the spike seeder to overseed the middle of the fields and other heavy use areas with more Riviera for faster fill in when needed.

Morche says, “To keep a thick stand of turf on the cool-season fields, we’ll overseed with 5 pounds of fescue/rye mix per 1,000 square feet. We’ll core-aerate, broadcast the seed, then drag the cores and the seed to fill the holes and get good seed-to-soil contact. If one field is starting to show wear in the middle, we’ll use the spike-tooth overseeder to drill in additional seed in that area.”

One advantage of the large complex is the ability to experiment with different maintenance practices and have a side-by-side comparison. A current project is testing high seeding rates in high-traffic areas, an idea Morche gleaned from a presentation by Dr. Dave Minner from Iowa State University. He says, “The field we tried it on is looking good as we hit summer, but we’ll wait until the end of fall play to assess how effective it is for us.”

Their pest control program follows standard IPM procedures, with control products only used when absolutely necessary for the least disruption of field use schedules. Morche says, “We don’t use a preemergent product because we want the option of season-long overseeding. Generally, we’ll use Trimec Plus for postemergent weed control if needed to hit both broadleaf weeds and crabgrass. We control any disease infestations with cultural practices. Insecticides are only used as spot-treatment for field damaging insects or nuisance pests, such as the cicada killer wasps.”

The goal is for Sportport to turn a profit for the complex or at least break even. The more play allowed on the fields, the greater the wear, which then requires more maintenance and upkeep. It’s a balance that keeps equalizing itself at a higher dollar level.

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.