Don’t wear socks, you tell people. And they think you’re crazy.
Then they don’t … and you aren’t. They heed your suggestion to walk out onto the fringe of the John Hunt Park soccer fields, slip out of their shoes and step barefoot onto the soft, springy, ticklish grass. Indescribable comfort.
If only you had a lawn half as lush and green and cushy as this, your neighborhood association’s “Yard of the Month” sign would become as permanent a structure in front of your house as your mailbox.
John Hunt Park, the 428-acre City of Huntsville facility, has hosted the Alabama High School Athletic Association State Soccer Championships since 2002. This year’s tournament opens May 11, with 32 teams converging on the park for the three-day event.
Coupled with the AHSAA Northeast Regional softball tournament that takes place concurrently nearby Kiwanis Park, it’s an annual economic impact of greater than $1.6 million to the Huntsville economy, according to Ralph Stone, executive director of the Huntsville Sports Commission.
Steve Savarese, executive director of the AHSAA, has called the tournament “one of the best events” on the organization’s schedule, praising the city for its teamwork and the fields as ultra-special for the players.
The players already know the secret. Says Tony Ivey, Landscape Management Supervisor for the City of Huntsville, “The first thing they do when they get off the bus is go out there and take their shoes off.”
John Hunt Park, named for the city’s founder, is one of the Parks & Recreation Department facilities and the complex includes more than simply the soccer fields. The multi-purpose Jaycees Building sits on the property, as does a monument and brick-pavers garden that recognizes members of the Huntsville-Madison County Sports Hall of Fame.
Across Airport Road are tennis courts and other youth league fields, a cross-country course and Becky Peirce Municipal Golf Course. The course is currently closed, and is currently being evaluated by a consulting group for its future.
The soccer fields are another example of inter-department collaboration, as Landscape Management handles the fields’ maintenance. During the championship weekend, there will be a partnership of more than a half-dozen departments combining to assure its success.
There are myriad soccer fields in Huntsville, but that’s like saying there are several golf courses in Augusta. The two centerpiece fields at John Hunt Park get a little extra TLC from Ivey and his crew. In fact, for the first several years of the state tournament, the fields were reserved for those games and only a couple of other special events all year long.
Now Ivey & Co. have things down to a science in how to handle things in case of drought (like last summer) or deluge (like, it seems, at least once per state tournament.) The fields are able to endure more traffic, thus handle more events.
On a recent afternoon, as a worker rumbled back and forth in a mower, Ivey, Jay Fults and Daniel Elliott gathered at the fields. Fults, like Ivey, has been working the fields since they were rough pitches barely better than a sandlot field, back in 1994.
They share some nuts-and-bolts about the fields; good luck translating some of this to your own yard:
— The grass is rye overseeded with a 419 Bermuda. Elliott applies a chelated iron fertilizer.
— The grass on the championship fields is cut to a 1-inch height. They’re mowed twice a day. Fields at other parks used for recreational purposes are cut to two inches.
— The grass would actually be greener and brighter were it to be longer, but it would also be slower than the competitors want.
— The mowers have rollers that press down on the grass as they make their cross-field paths, thus mashing down blades slightly in one direction or the other, creating the contrasting “stripes” that fans notice.
— It takes more than two hours to paint the lines on the field, using a power contraption, and they’ll have to be painted four times for tournament weekend.
— It’s a year-round proposition, even if the fields don’t get much play after the fall. In October, Elliott begins the process of prepping them for the winter, still mowing on occasion and regularly monitoring them. They begin prepping in earnest for the state tournament six to eight weeks out.
— There is a sprinkler system, but rather than rely on a timer in these days of capricious weather, the watering is done “strategically” says Ivey.
— The crew has created an equally lush (but longer-bladed) patch of turf in the area around the locker rooms and concession stands. Shoes optional there.
Ivey recalled an interview from several years ago in which he was asked about his own lawn. It was good then, and better now – though perhaps not as well-tended in these busy days. All three have pride in what they’ve done at home, with yards just as nice. Says Fults, “I can’t stand weeds.” But as Elliott bemoans, “This reminds me I have to go home tonight and mow.”
There is also much pride in what’s been created at John Hunt Park.
“I enjoy turf science, and this is a way to showcase what you’ve learned,” Fults says. “As a group, we take pride in what we’ve done.”
“In our world,” Ivey says, “we get a lot more complaints than pats on the back. But we know people appreciate what we do when they come out here. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the comments are compliments, not complaints.”