LEWISTON — Patrick George lined up in a three-point stance and dug his fingers in to the Garcelon Field turf at a recent Bates College football practice and remembers when things weren’t quite so neat.
Four years ago, George, now the Bobcats’ senior captain, was digging his fingers into muddy sod with some grass mixed in, the amount depending upon how late in the season it was.
“My freshman year, we played Middlebury. It was pouring rain the whole game, an absolute mud bowl,” George recalled.
On this late-summer day, little more than 24 hours after a pounding thunder storm, George’s fingers merged with a lush, dry mixture of rubber pellets, sand and plastic blades of grass.
That mixture is rendering mud bowls virtually extinct. Across the country, games at all levels, from pee-wees to pros, are increasingly being played on synthetic turf rather than natural grass.
Most sports fans have noticed the change from watching their favorite professional and college teams. But artificial surfaces are becoming more attractive to schools and municipalities looking to save money on field maintenance and get more usage out of their fields.
The City of Lewiston is hoping to join the trend. The Lewiston Athletic Foundation Trustees have begun fundraising for a renovation project that includes two new artificial turf fields at the city-owned Franklin Pasture athletic complex at Lewiston High School.
“For us, it’s a maintenance thing,” Lewiston High School athletic director Jason Fuller said. “What I expend every year in maintenance costs doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore.”
Synthetic turf fields such as FieldTurf, the most prominent manufacturer of artificial turf, cost more to install than their natural counterparts. But that cost is offset within a few years because artificial turf fields are cheaper to maintain and can be used year-round.
“Our biggest client is the municipalities, the high schools, the parks and recreation departments,” said Harlan Michaud, regional vice president for Northeast Turf, a South Portland company which has installed over 300 FieldTurf fields, including Bates College, Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium, the University of Maine and Gillette Stadium.
“With a lot more people playing on fields, it’s just very tough to keep up with the wear-and-tear and the maintenance that a lot of municipalities have to do,” Michaud said. “(FieldTurf) is synthetic. It can withstand the wear-and-tear and the maintenance that a lot of municipalities have to do.”
Wear-and-tear has become an issue at Lewiston High School’s main field, Don Roux Field, home to its football, soccer and lacrosse teams, Fuller said. Increased school and community usage of the field have made it difficult to keep the field in satisfactory playing condition.
“When the stadium was first built (in the 1990s), we didn’t have lacrosse, so we had all spring to get the field back and ready to play in the fall,” Fuller said. “With lacrosse, it really hampers the growing season.”
As much as the field is used, Fuller said he has to turn down many more groups who want to use it, even when school is out.
“Soccer is huge in this community. We get bombarded with requests in the summer and we don’t have the fields for them to play on because we need that summer time to shut down that field and grow the grass. I don’t think we’re doing a service to the entire community when we do that,” Fuller said.
“(With two artificial turf fields), I can balance the demands of the community plus the high school and middle school teams,” he said.
Artificial turf fields have come a long way since the carpet on concrete Astroturf surface was introduced in the Houston Astrodome in the 1960s. Fields look and feel more like natural turf. Unsightly and unsafe seams that made the old artificial turf hard on the eyes and joints are more secure and less exposed.
The biggest difference between Astroturf and modern artificial surfaces such as FieldTurf is the infill, which acts as a cushion. In FieldTurf, the infill consists of a bottom layer of silica sand, a middle layer homogeneous mixture of silica sand and cryogenic rubber granules from recycled tires, and a top layer of larger rubber granules only. Topping it all off are monofilament fibers shaped to resemble a blade of grass.
Gould Academy installed FieldTurf at Schroy Field in 2009. The field hosts field hockey and boys’ and girls’ lacrosse games as well as practices for baseball, softball and soccer. School officials said it’s one of their best weapons against Bethel’s winters, which average about 12 feet of yearly snowfall, and unpredictable springs.
“It’s a huge plus for spring athletics,” said Tucker Kimball, Gould’s director of communications. “Mother Nature is a fickle beast in March and April, so to have something that is pretty much useable and safe and available year-round is a big plus for the entire community.”
Gould Dean of Athletics and Co-curricular Activities Jay Ridley said the synthetic turf allows spring sports teams to use Schroy Field four to six weeks earlier than when it was a natural grass surface. That availability has given a competitive boost to Gould teams, particularly boys’ lacrosse “just because we can get out there in March as opposed to having to wait sometimes until mid-to-late April.”
That is why Bates’ Garcelon Field, and its older Astroturf field around the corner on Campus Avenue, are in high demand during the late autumn and early spring.
Two years ago, Bates installed FieldTurf as part of a $2.6 million renovation project at Garcelon. The field easily withstands football, soccer, lacrosse and rugby games.But more important to the coaches and players is its availability for practices, rain or shine.
“A lot of people think about the game day and they say you’re always playing on a good surface. For us, it’s probably more important for practice because we play eight games (but) we practice four times a week,” Bates football head coach Mark Harriman said. “Having a great surface to practice on is, for us, more beneficial than anything.”
Before Garcelon’s renovation, the football team practiced on baseball and softball fields on the edge of campus. If it rained or the field got too torn up, practices were moved indoors.
“With this field, it doesn’t matter the weather. It could be pouring out. We’re still practicing out here,” George said. “It makes a huge difference because everyone knows we’re going to be on the field, no matter what.”
“It doesn’t get torn up,” said Ryan Weston, a senior offensive lineman from Bangor. “With grass, you have one wet practice or one wet game and it’s torn up. It’s mud for the rest of the year.”
Not that Weston and his teammates don’t occasionally long for the mud or the smell of real grass. With half the teams in their conference now playing on artificial turf, the opportunities are dwindling.
“We always look forward to those wet, muddy games. It’s just fun. It’s like backyard football,” Weston said. “But it’s well worth the trade-off.”