Stewart Field rentals vindicate turf supporters

Two years after a synthetic surface was installed, Aberdeen’s Stewart Field has become at least the temporary home turf for three high school football teams and a semi-pro club.

Besides hosting Bobcat games, the ancient Aberdeen stadium is in its second season as the home field for Wishkah football (due to ongoing maintenance at Addison Field) and, in the wake of the Rottle Field grandstand fire, will stage some Montesano games as well. The Bulldog varsity footballers might play only once at Stewart Field (this coming Friday against Forks) but will likely schedule several soccer contests there.

The semi-pro Grays Harbor Bearcats are already using Stewart Field for their home games during the spring and summer.

While acknowledging that he didn’t foresee so much demand for the facility, Aberdeen athletic director Ken Ashlock said one of the purposes of the turf installation was to accommodate multiple entities.

“We want it to be utilized,” he asserted. “The goal was for it to be utilized, but I never thought it would be the home for three (high school) teams.”

To some extent, the current state of affairs represents vindication for supporters of the SOS (Save Our Stewart) fundraising drive.

While the $1.2-million project did not rely on direct taxpayer support (it was financed by grants, donations and money from the Aberdeen School District’s capital expenditure budget), there were the usual group of naysayers who contended that the turf field was an extravagance that would not attract widespread bookings.

That view was initially reinforced when Stewart Field was not selected as the site for any state playoff football games in its inaugural turf season of 2010.

But two Montesano playoff games the following year were financial and artistic successes and amply demonstrated that Grays Harbor football fans will turn out in force for such contests, even when they don’t involve teams from their own school districts.

One Aberdeen parent this season called Stewart Field a “magnificent” facility. That’s a little strong.

Stewart Field has a state-of-the-art turf, a fine scoreboard and perhaps the best press box in Southwest Washington, assuming you can get to and from it. The sloping roof between the press box ladder and the booth can be tricky to negotiate in wet or icy conditions and the penalty for failing to do is fairly severe — a potentially unabated plunge off the rooftop to a paved parking area far below.

In other respects, Stewart Field remains an aging stadium with some infrastructure issues.

Nevertheless, the mere fact that “magnificent” and “Stewart Field” can be mentioned in the same sentence is evidence of how the perception of the stadium has changed.

Prior to the turf installation, Stewart Field was nobody’s favorite venue. Two Aberdeen High home football games — one a Homecoming contest — were moved to Hoquiam’s Olympic Stadium due to persistent drainage problems. The Bobcat girls soccer team usually was limited to one appearance per season (generally Senior Night) at the stadium for fear of causing further field damage.

Wishkah’s state quarterfinal victory over Quilcene at Stewart Field in 1984 (the year the Loggers won the state 8-man championship) was played in what may have been the worst field conditions in playoff history. And the visiting team’s dressing room at the now-defunct Miller Natatorium included, for a time, only one operational urinal.

The current Stewart Field turf should last for another 10-13 years, according to Ashlock. He estimated the replacement cost at $200,000, but the district is depositing rental fees from other schools and organizations into a special fund that would help defray the expense.

One reason Stewart Field is in such demand these days is because it is the only Twin Harbors facility with artificial turf.

Bond issues that would have included turf fields have been proposed or submitted in other Harbor communities. Any such bond proposal faces tough sledding, however, since a substantial percentage of the electorate tends to view synthetic turf as a luxury rather than a necessity.

That may be the case at a school such as Lake Quinault, which doesn’t offer a soccer or junior varsity football program and is too isolated to attract a lot of rental business. Quinault, incidentally, does boast what I would consider to be one of the Harbor’s two best baseball fields (along with Westport’s GAR Park), a largely privately financed gem that was constructed after poor field conditions prevented the Elks from playing home games for several years.

The view here, however, is that any school district that has an ambitious fall sports program needs either artificial turf or a second viable grass field (such as Hoquiam, with Olympic Stadium and the high school’s Sea Breeze Oval field) to minimize the traffic on the primary venue.

Montesano’s Rottle Field, for example, had been the site for varsity, JV, C squad and junior high football games and high school varsity soccer contests.

By the end of even a moderately wet fall, the playing surface was so chewed up that it resembled a battle zone. Under those conditions, player safety became an issue.

While no decision has yet been made, Montesano athletic director Tim Trimble speculated that district officials would lean toward a turf field due to a shortage of green space in the community. Monte’s junior varsity soccer team plays its home games at Simpson Elementary School, but Trimble said that field is a bit too small for varsity matches.

The traffic at Stewart Field figures to decrease next fall, when Montesano and Wishkah are expected to return to their own fields.

Ashlock emphasized, however, that the welcome mat will continue to be out in Aberdeen.

“We’re trying to help out any way we can,” said the AHS athletic director. “When our school burned down, people in the community came out of the woodwork to help us. We’re extending the same olive branch. It’s the right thing to do.”