Local teams see no hope in sight for trampled fields
South Terrebonne High School Head Football Coach Richard Curlin spends his summers tending to the earth.
The coach is out under the blazing sun looking after the school’s football field. He routinely cuts the grass and spruces up the field as much as he can before the school year, and subsequent prep sports seasons, begin anew.
The conditions on Friday must not have been welcome news to Curlin, as the field’s nickname “The Swamp” took on a literal meaning. Ellender Memorial High School, which shares the field with STHS, had to move its home game against Patterson High School to Patterson due to poor field conditions. The Swamp was still a muddy mess reeling from Ellender’s 12-0 victory over Bonnabel the week before. Ellender Head Coach David McCormick said the school lost thousands of dollars by changing the venue, but he feels he made the right decision.
“We lost four or five grand at the gate, but it doesn’t matter. I would have had a hard time sleeping knowing that we were on that field again because it wasn’t safe. There’s no price tag you can put on it,” McCormick said.
Ellender’s “home” game brings up an issue that has faced the Terrebonne Parish School District for years: the implementation of artificial turf fields at local high schools. The parish currently has two football fields for varsity sports for four high schools, with the aforementioned STHS-Ellender timeshare joined by Terrebonne High School sharing its field with H.L. Bourgeois.
Both fields are grass, which can take days to properly drain after rain events. When players run all over a wet grass field with cleats, the field can quickly deteriorate into 120 yards of sloppy sludge. The two fields are not only used on Fridays, either, as the high schools’ junior varsity and freshman teams as well as local middle schools use the two fields for their games. After football season ends, those same schools’ soccer teams take the mantle. Combine the constant stress on the fields with the heavy rains of South Louisiana, and the two fields are constantly at risk of being unplayable.
Curlin said he and his crew just try to do the best they can in maintaining the STHS field during the season, but they are no match for Mother Nature’s intents.
“You try to roll it. You try to keep the mud off it best you can. With two schools using it and JV, it’s physically impossible. The field can’t take the abuse,” Curlin said.
The school district had looked into bringing in turf to the two high school fields in 2014. The school board voted to gather information on the cost of adding two turf fields and even set aside $200,000 for any efforts. According to TPSD Superintendent Philip Martin, the school came back with estimates of anywhere from $800,000 to $2 million to install one turf field. Other estimates put the lowest price of one field around $600,000. In the two years since looking into turf, however, the local economy has taken a nosedive as the oil and gas economy tumbled, meaning reduced sales tax revenues for the school district. School board member Greg Harding said there has been no movement since 2014, but the parish is aware of the problems facing the schools’ athletics.
“We’re still working on it. We’re still looking at it. It’s just, right now, it’s almost impossible, with the economy, to go out and spend $1.2 million on two football fields when we there’s other things the other things that money could be used for,” Harding said.
E.D. White in Thibodaux has its own turf field, and head coach Chris Bergeron said the addition has been beneficial to his team. While the Cardinals practice on grass, which is easier on players’ lower bodies, as much as they can, they are able to practice and play their games on the turf field, which can drain in 30 minutes and doesn’t get torn up by cleats. According to Bergeron, it avoids his team having to have a limited practice in the school’s gym when rain comes.
“The biggest difference is the turf’s always dry. As much rain as we got in the last two weeks, it doesn’t affect us. A lot of teams have to make a decision (regarding practices and games),” Bergeron said.
South Terrebonne Athletic Director Francis Labat said turf is long overdue at The Swamp. He said he and Curlin, who has been at STHS for 33 years, want a field that is always playable and not filled with puddles and holes presenting a litany of threats to athletes’ ankles and knees.
“Coach Curlin and I both have a goal in mind that before we retire, we want to see the parish do something that would make it worth our while,” Labat said. •