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Fielding their dreams

Six area high schools are the latest to upgrade to multimillion-dollar athletic facilities with synthetic turf

Dedham High athletic director Michael Plansky on the new field, the centerpiece of a $3.2 million upgrade of the school’s athletic facilities. Dedham High athletic director Michael Plansky on the new field, the centerpiece of a $3.2 million upgrade of the school’s athletic facilities. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Rich Fahey
Globe Correspondent / December 1, 2011
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A ll of a sudden, the athletes at Dedham High School had a spring in their step.

On Oct. 12, the Marauders’ field hockey team became the school’s first athletic team to compete on the school’s new Astro-Turf synthetic turf field - under the lights, to boot. The field is the centerpiece of a $3.2 million upgrade of the school’s athletic facilities.

Players accustomed to small crowds on weekday afternoons could now play under the lights before family and friends who couldn’t attend games during the day.

“You only have to look at our girls’ soccer team,’’ said second-year Dedham High athletic director Michael Plansky. “As soon as they got on that turf, they took off.’’

Dedham finished with a 15-3-2 record and earned the fifth seed in the MIAA Division II South tournament. The Marauders played their first playoff game at home under the lights, beating Norton, then defeated Cardinal Spellman in a shootout before falling to perennial power Duxbury in the semifinals.

Artificial turf fields at six high schools south of Boston - Braintree, Brockton, Dedham, Hanover, Norwood, and Randolph - have come on line in recent months, with the one in Brockton High replacing an earlier turf field. More are sure to follow.

What was once a rarity is edging closer to becoming a majority. There are now 20 synthetic turf fields at the 50 public high schools in the region south of Boston. All but two - a practice field in Braintree and a field in Norwood - also have lights. In fact, 34 of the 50 schools also have access to lighted playing fields, allowing for night games.

In a fall that has seen heavy rainfall - not to mention a surprise pre-Halloween snowfall in some areas - the fields have won raves from coaches and athletic directors.

There’s no mud or soggy conditions that can turn grass fields sloppy and cause schedulers to cancel games. The fields are durable, so they can be used all day, and won’t suffer immediate damage from dozens of cleated shoes running across the surface. It also alters the game - soccer balls or field hockey balls, for example, travel much faster across a turf field than over real grass.

“We still use our judgment when it comes to whether to play,’’ Plansky said. “But we know an hour after the rain stops, we have a guaranteed playable field.’’

Installing an artificial field and running track costs about $1 million, according to officials at two firms that just completed projects at schools in this area, Jim Doherty of R.A.D. Sports of Rockland, which installed the Field Turf at Gillette Stadium and the new field at Marciano Stadium in Brockton; and Mike DiNatale of All-American Sports Group of Canton, which did the Dedham project. Drainage issues and bells and whistles can drive that figure up.

The fields, they said, will last about 10 years.

The state does not reimburse districts that choose to include the fields as part of their school building projects. That means school districts must turn to local taxpayers or private donors to pay for the new fields.

The field at Dedham High was part of a larger upgrade that included new locker rooms, bathrooms, bleachers, ramps, and lights. A private group raised the money for the lights, but taxpayers picked up the tab for the field and other upgrades.

In addition to local schools, youth sports groups are finding their way onto the new fields on some nights, weekends, and during the summer months, when the fields can also be rented out.

“We’re going to incorporate as many youth groups as possible,’’ said Plansky, citing youth soccer, football, and lacrosse. “We expect the facility to be very busy on weekends.’’

Braintree High’s two new turf fields - one for the main football stadium and another on an adjoining practice field - were built at a cost of $1.235 million and were first used on Oct. 21. It didn’t take long for groups outside the school to use them.

“Pop Warner and youth soccer have already used it for playoffs,’’ said Braintree High athletic director Mike Denise. “There’s a real excitement factor that kicks in when you play on the high school varsity field. They should be a part of it. They’re our feeder systems, and our partners.’’

Lights are often - but not always - part of the package.

The new Norwood High opened its new synthetic turf field and running track on Sept. 10, part of the $57 million school project. The field does not yet have lights, which limits its use to daylight hours.

“We’re thrilled with what we have, but down the line we’d like to see more uses for the field,’’ said athletic director Brian McDonough.

This fall, the field was pretty much limited to football practice and games. The school band has also used it for practice, even moving some portable lights into place for late afternoon or early evening practices.

McDonough hopes night games eventually become part of the equation.

“There’s no doubt that you can generate more revenue when you play at night,’’ said McDonough, who noted that Friday night football games draw well almost everywhere and that night games in other sports are also well attended.

The turf field at the new Hanover High School came on line last spring, and athletic director Fran Coyle said field hockey and boys’ and girls’ soccer teams each played two home games on the turf under the lights this fall, in addition to the football schedule.

“The way this fall went, if you had a grass field, you wouldn’t have any grass left on it by now,’’ said Coyle. “We were doing 75 to 80 games a year on our old grass field.’’

In Brockton, a new $1.2 million turf field and running track at 10,000-seat Marciano Stadium opened last month. It replaced a turf field that was installed in 2002.

The project rehabbed not just the deteriorated artificial-turf football field but also the surrounding track and fence, the drainage underneath, and the goal posts at either end.

Randolph High School’s homecoming football victory (34-16) over Case High on Nov. 6 marked the first time the school used the new turf field that is part of a $2.8 million upgrade of athletic facilities approved by the town last March.

The extensive project also called for flipping the orientation of the former football field. The former field used to parallel Highland Avenue, while the new artificial turf field runs along Memorial Parkway.

“It’s been stressful but worth it,’’ said first-year athletic director Anthony Price about the disruption during construction. “Now we have a first-class facility that we hope will allow us to keep some of the student-athletes we’ve been losing to other schools.’’

Price said there was a “whole new atmosphere’’ at the first game. “You could feel the excitement in the stands,’’ he said. He said it was important for the students to see the commitment the town is making on their behalf.

The new fields, lights, and bleachers don’t win any games, but they can provide the impetus to allow a school such as Dedham High - with 768 students, the smallest enrollment in the Bay State League - to compete with the larger schools.

“There’s a whole new energy now,’’ said Plansky. “We have a state-of-the-art facility no one can beat. We’re hoping that the excitement and energy can translate into more success.’’

Rich Fahey can be reached at fahey.rich2@gmail.com.

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