Baton Rouge area schools switch to synthetic turf

Several high schools in the Baton Rouge area have spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to trade in natural grass for a synthetic surface at their football stadiums.

And others have their eyes on possibly following suit, falling in line with a growing national trend.

In 2007, Zachary High School became the first local school to replace its sod with artificial turf as part of a $1.4 million project resurfacing both the school’s football field and track. Parkview Baptist, Denham Springs, Live Oak and Lutcher have followed suit, while artificial turf has been purchased but not yet installed at St. James High School.

Officials in Ascension Parish are considering whether to spend approximately $1 million at each of the parish’s four high schools — Donaldsonville, Dutchtown, East Ascension and St. Amant — to replace the grass surfaces with artificial turf. The $4 million in turf installations would be part of a larger athletic facilities improvement plan that could cost the district as much as $15 million.

Coaches and administrators at schools who have made the switch rave about the benefits of the artificial surface, both to the schools’ football programs as well as other programs that can utilize the all-weather surface.

Zachary High School Principal Wesley Watts described himself as a “grass guy,” but he admitted there a number of benefits to turf.

“We do like it,” Watts said. “For us it is more beneficial than not.”

Joey Sanchez, the athletic director for Zachary Community Schools, said the benefits of the turf far outweigh any perceived negatives.

The biggest drawback to artificial turf is the initial cost, which runs anywhere from $750,000 to $1 million, from design to installation. That’s a lot of taxpayer dollars going to an athletic facility, with most of the turf installations funded by the school districts and not private dollars.

Other concerns are the temperature on the turf, especially during the summer and the start of the school year, can be much higher than grass fields, and an outdated perception that artificial grass leads to more injuries than natural grass.

“I like the turf because of the playability of it,” Sanchez said. “We could have a week at our place where we have a freshman game on Monday, middle school on Tuesday, junior varsity on Wednesday, varsity on Friday, and we have a Junior Broncos Youth Football league that can play four games on Saturday.”

The turf also serves the school well during inclement weather, Sanchez said. The football and soccer teams can still have practice or can play games when it’s raining, and other teams such as baseball and softball can use the field for drills when their fields are too wet or muddy.

“It can be pouring down outside and you still have playability,” he said.

Benny Saia, the head football coach and athletic director at Dutchtown High School, described himself as an “old-fashioned” coach who enjoyed playing games on grass and doing the necessary work to get the football field ready for game day. Nevertheless, he notes that artificial turf prevents playing fields from being torn up by excess wear and tear of games, marching bands and community events.

“The durability of it is the big plus,” Saia said. “I like grass, but I think we’re probably going to have it at some point.”

Tim Detillier, the head football coach and athletic director at Lutcher High School, said he highly recommends a turf field to any high school.

The artificial surface saves coaches time on maintenance, ending the need for constant grass-cutting and painting of the field. That time can be used “more wisely” for skill development or in the weight room, he said.

Grass fields tend to become unplayable during the winter, after a long football season and after soccer games during wet months.

“The (artificial) turf is so consistent, which actually is safer. It’s better than natural grass,” Detillier said. “Yesterday, it stormed here, and we went out and could still practice.”

The St. James Parish School Board spent around $3.2 million for artificial turf for the football stadium and upgrade the track complexes at Lutcher and St. James high schools. St. James received a new track, while Lutcher’s was refurbished.

Lutcher just completed its first season with the turf, while officials at St. James High are still awaiting installation. A new off-campus football stadium, where the turf will be installed, is still under construction. The new stadium and turf should be ready for the 2014 football season, said Dwain Jenkins, the St. James head football coach and athletic director.

“It’s purchased and sitting in a warehouse in Georgia waiting to be installed,” said Jenkins, who was an assistant coach at Lutcher before moving to St. James in January. “It’s been there since last July.”

Like his former boss at Lutcher, Jenkins is a fan of FieldTurf, an industry leader that designed both of the St. James Parish fields.

Aesthetically, it “looks so much nicer,” he said. There’s less maintenance; the field drains better, can be used year-round and truly serves multiple purposes.

“From a functional standpoint, and that’s probably a bigger key for me, it’s a consistent surface every day,” Jenkins said. “There’s no ruts, there’s no hills, there’s no bumps.”

It’s also safer, he said. While there are concerns about the heat, that can be managed by not practicing or playing games in the middle of the day during the summer. Artificial fields had a bad reputation in the past for causing serious injuries, but this isn’t the first-generation Astroturf of the 1970s, Jenkins said.

Companies continue to improve their product, and turf nowadays presents a grass-like playing experience.

“Many times injuries happen on grass fields from inconsistencies of the grass,” Jenkins said. “Head injuries are the biggest concern in athletics today. The turf actually has a higher rating than what some natural fields have. The concussion rating is better than grass.”

Penn State University’s Center for Sports Surface Research has published studies that show artificial turf causes less significant injuries and tested better on preventing concussions than natural grass.

While several high schools already have bitten the bullet and switched to artificial turf, and coaches believe more and more will do so in the future, one organization that decided against leaving grass behind is BREC.

The East Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission renovated its Olympia Stadium in 2011 and Memorial Stadium the following year as part of its strategic parks improvement plan. Officials chose to use natural bermuda grass, rather than a synthetic surface, partly because of the costs, said Cheryl Michelet, BREC’s director of communications.

BREC spent approximately $175,000 on the grass upgrades, while the projects would have cost between $1.5 million and $2 million to install artificial turf.

“It’s taxpayer dollars,” Michelet said.

In the average year, BREC will host approximately 80 football games at its stadiums, ranging from high school games on Friday nights to its youth and adult recreation leagues. Michelet said BREC had some concerns about the heat of the turf as well as the cost to continually replace the surface.

Artificial turf fields typically last from six to 12 years, depending on the manufacturer, while natural grass fields can last much longer.

“We’re not saying (artificial turf) is right or wrong for anybody, but for BREC this was the decision that was best for us,” she said.

Detillier, the Lutcher High coach, said he encourages any school district leader or coach to take the leap with artificial turf. Lutcher’s state-championship baseball team practiced on it leading up to the state tournament in Sulphur, which has turf baseball fields, and the school even hosted its graduation ceremony on the new field.

“It’s actually cheaper. It’s safer,” Detillier said. “I don’t want to sound like I’m doing a commercial, but I love it.”