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Stonington - In the spring of 2012, First Selectman Ed Haberek began hearing from high school coaches and residents about the deteriorating condition of the high school athletic fields.
They were in such poor shape that state tournament field hockey games had to be moved to other locations and there was a danger the football field could no longer host games. When it rained, the softball field became a lake and the rutted, rocky football practice field posed a danger to players.
Meanwhile, the fields could not recover because of heavy use from not only the high school teams but also from youth and recreation teams.
Although money was tight, Haberek put together a task force of school and town officials, coaches and residents to study the fields and recommend a plan to fix them.
Now just a year later, the first phase of the $2.8 million field project that was approved by voters has been completed with the installation of an artificial turf surface on the football field.
On Wednesday night, a ribbon-cutting for the Donald Palmer Field took place before the girls' varsity field hockey game, which marked the first varsity game played on the field. Representatives of the teams that will use the field cut a red ribbon with Palmer's daughter, Anna Palmer Marston of Old Mystic.
The rededication of the field will be held before the first home football game on Oct. 11.
Athletic Director Bryan Morrone told the crowd that the field is something the town should be proud of.
"What we have in this facility, bar none, is the best in the ECC," he told the crowd, referring to the league the school plays in.
The Donald Palmer Field now features alternating panels of light and dark green turf and has a large "S" at the 50-yard line. It has been lined to also host field hockey, soccer and lacrosse games as well as youth sports. Renovation work has now begun on the softball, boys' soccer, field hockey and multipurpose fields.
"I'm still enjoying going out on that field every day. It's not getting old. We're privileged to have this," said head football coach A.J. Massengale, who originally favored playing games on natural grass, earlier this week. "But now I see the incredible benefit of this surface for our practices."
He said the field provides much more space along the sidelines and past the end zones, allowing for more efficient practices.
"The kids love (it). It's a great surface," he said. "The fact they were able to get it done as quickly as they did is amazing."
Before Wednesday night's ceremony, senior quarterback Divante White said the field allows the team to hold more up-tempo practices because of the extra space.
"It's really nice to play on. There's no rocks to fall on anymore," he said.
White said he was excited when he first heard the school was getting a turf field, especially since it was going to be ready for his senior year.
"We were one of the only schools without a field like this," he said.
Morrone said the teams can practice on the field in bad weather, saving wear and tear on the gym floor where practices are often moved. In addition, physical education classes can use it instead of the grass fields.
Haberek praised town staff, especially Director of Public Works Joe Bragaw and the task force headed by Paul Sartor, for their work and bringing the project to fruition so quickly. Members spent countless hours visiting other fields and developing and evaluating a range of options.
"I was impressed with how this was a community effort to better the town. This was a perfect example of how an infrastructure project should work with getting resident input and putting it to a vote. The whole community will benefit from this for many years," he said.
Now that the field has been completed, the town and school officials are taking steps to protect the investment made by taxpayers.
Superintendant Van Riley, who oversaw nine field projects when he worked in California, said the field is inspected every day, and there are monitors at each event to ensure that banned items such as Gatorade, sunflower seeds and gum are not allowed on the field. Players and coaches as well as opposing teams have been made aware of the rules, and signs are being posted.
Sartor urged those at the ceremony to protect the field as if it were part of their own backyard.
"We did this for you," he said, turning to the high school athletes.
Because artificial turf can be used all the time without fear of wearing out like natural grass, youth teams such as the Stonington Sharks soccer club have already begun practicing on the field.
"We don't want it to sit idle. We want other teams to use it," Morrone said.
At the beginning of Wednesday's ceremony, there was a moment of silence in memory of Josh Piver, a former member of the boys' soccer team, who was killed in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The boys' soccer field is named after him.