Pre-Halloween snow last fall turned many of Maine high schools’ grass athletic fields into slippery, muddy messes by the time the soccer playoffs began.
That left some Aroostook County teams scrambling for alternate sites with artificial turf, and that made Mark White a busy man.
“Just a little bit of snow and/or rain will make [fields] unplayable, so those of us with [artificial] turf fields end up hosting playoff games for teams that can’t get on their fields,” said White, the Presque Isle athletic director who oversees the Gehrig T. Johnson artificial-turf complex.
Last fall, Presque Isle hosted four games that did not involve its own teams in the quarterfinals and semifinals in addition to its own home playoff games.
The Maine Principals’ Association and its soccer committee have decided to address Mother Nature’s late autumn weather whims and follow its practice in several other sports beginning in November by staging all regional championship soccer matches at neutral sites with artificial turf.
“Weather and field conditions were just abysmal the last two years, and we ended up having schools scrambling at the last minute to find fields to get their games on,” said Mike Bisson, MPA assistant executive director and the liaison to its soccer committee.
Bisson said the MPA received a formal request from the Penobscot Valley Conference and similar inquiries from athletic administrators around the state to consider hosting the regional finals on neutral, turf fields.
“This way there’ll be no scrambling,” he said. “You’ll know where those matches are going to be.”
Sites for the regional finals will be scheduled prior to the season, and every effort will be made to avoid a school playing a regional final on its home field, Bisson said. Although due to the lack of turf fields in some areas of the state, that is not guaranteed.
Regional soccer finals this fall will be contested at five venues from Presque Isle to Biddeford, with winners advancing to the state finals at Hampden Academy and Falmouth High School.
Sites for the regional championship, as with the state final matches, will be rotated each year given the availability of artificial-turf facilities in each region, Bisson said.
This year’s regional soccer schedule begins Nov. 5 with Class A North boys and girls matches at McMann Field in Bath, Class A South at Waterhouse Field in Biddeford, Class C North in Presque Isle and Class C South at Lewiston High School.
Regional doubleheaders for Classes B and D will follow on Nov. 6 with Class B North at Hampden Academy, Class B South in Biddeford, Class D North in Presque Isle and Class D South in Lewiston.
The doubleheaders start with boys matches at 4 p.m. followed by the girls games at 6:30 p.m. Those start times will rotate every year, with the boys playing the early games in odd-numbered years and the girls playing the opener in even-numbered years.
The decision to move all regional finals to artificial turf brings soccer in line with field hockey, baseball and softball, which play regional championship matches at neutral sites.
Field hockey also uses artificial-turf sites to provide better field conditions.
“I think this is a positive step for us to bring soccer in line with the other sports,” Bisson said.
“Now we’ve got enough turf fields throughout the state that we feel we can handle those 16 [regional finals] over two days.”
One key to ensuring enough geographic diversity among soccer sites was the availability of the Presque Isle venue, which hosted the Class C and Class D state finals in 2015 and is on track to host state championship matches in 2020.
The Presque Isle boys and girls both won Class B North championships last fall, the boys capturing the state title.
The Johnson complex, which will have new artificial turf installed this summer, will be ready to host the C and D North regional finals this year.
“We put in our turf to use it, and I’ll be able to put a crew together to do a nice job hosting regional finals here,” White said. “My staff takes a lot of pride in that facility, and we love it when people from away come up and say, ‘Hey look, that’s a pretty nice place.’”