The football fortunes of District 4-5A rivals Zachary and Walker high schools couldn’t be more different.
Zachary advanced to the Class 5A semifinals before losing to eventual state champion Acadiana last fall. Walker was winless.
Both schools illustrate different stages in the evolution of artificial turf on the high school level. More high schools are opting to purchase artificial turf to cover stadium surfaces, and program success isn’t always an indicator of who will or won’t turf.
Zachary replaced its first artificial turf installed in 2007 while also making way for a traditional eight-lane track. Walker is getting turf for the first time as part of a major two-year renovation that will impact the entire school. The Wildcats’ surface is scheduled to be in place by Aug. 15, along with a revamped traditional track.
“Schools across the state are crunching numbers and feeling the grip financially,” Zachary football coach David Brewerton said. “For our school board to make a decision to do this right now is huge. We had a sales tax in the spring that didn’t pass.
“What this shows is that our school board is trying to take care of our kids from a safety standpoint and improve our facilities.”
Zachary was the first Baton Rouge school to get artificial turf. Before 2007, West Monroe and St. Thomas More had artificial turf. Calvary Baptist had its turf installed at the same time Zachary did. Some public stadiums also used it.
Parkview Baptist and two of Walker’s Livingston Parish and 4-5A rivals, Denham Springs and Live Oak, have added artificial turf locally. Lutcher and St. James also have turf fields.
Live Oak’s turf/stadium is part of a new school complex. PBS also has turf on its softball field. Louisiana Leadership’s Doug Williams Stadium is another local football facility that features artificial turf.
Adding turf isn’t just a Baton Rouge thing. Video of Sulphur’s turf installation this summer made its way onto several Internet sites.
First-year Walker football coach Brandon Lawley said he considers the project to be a positive “leap of faith” by the Livingston Parish School Board for his program. After finishing last fall with 49 players, the Wildcats had 107 players complete spring practice, including more than 50 sophomores-to-be.
“This is something that’s been planned for several years now,” Walker Principal Jason St. Pierre said. “The entire look of the school is going to change. We’re adding a new gym, administrative offices, a two-story classroom building, a band room and an industrial arts room.
“The turf is just a part of that. It’s something our students can use all year — from football to the band, to the soccer teams and the baseball and softball teams.”
Lawley points out that the Walker area’s Renegade youth football program and junior high teams also will use the turf field. That’s a blueprint Zachary and others use. Last year, Catholic High added an artificial turf field that is used by its football team for practice and its soccer team.
Zachary Athletic Director Jesse Cassard and Brewerton both said their “Bronco Stadium” is a multi-purpose facility.
Cassard said it’s not unusual for his baseball team or Zachary’s softball team to take their turns on the turf when their fields are too wet for practice.
But at what cost? That’s typically a big question. Zachary’s first turf project was listed at $1.4 million and included a turf track that school officials deemed unusable last year, forcing the Broncos to host their annual track meet at another site.
Cassard said the cost for ZHS’ second turf project is right around $1 million because a regular all-weather track is being installed in place of the turf track. Walker’s turf project is a small part of $25 million bond issue. Cassard said the cost is cheaper than returning to a natural grass field.
Advocates of turf fields contend that they are more cost effective because they require little or no maintenance. No mowing, field painting or seeds to plant. The newer turf surfaces, like the one at Walker, are supposed to retain less heat, which would nix one key complaint about turf.
Brewerton also shoots down those who contend turf surfaces lead to more injuries.
“We had the same 22 starters in the jamboree that we had in Week 14,” Brewerton said. “Not too many people can say that. Before I came here, I was a big grass guy. I cut the field myself three times a week (at Livonia High). This gives you such a consistent surface. I’m sold on it.”
Follow Robin Fambrough on Twitter: @FambroughAdv