The results on the scoreboard that afternoon were not to Scott Buffington’s liking.
The overall experience, however, left a lasting impression on the long-time Schuylkill Haven baseball coach.
In 2018, Buffington’s Hurricanes reached the PIAA Class AA state semifinals, only to lose a heartbreaking, 9-8 decision to Camp Hill. The game was played at War Memorial Field in Ephrata, a complex that’s completely covered with artificial turf.
Two years later, the experience of playing on turf stuck
in Buffington’s mind as Schuylkill Haven superintendent Dr. Shawn Fitzpatrick presented him with a massive, $3.4 million renovation plan for the district’s outdoor athletic facilities.
Part of the three-phase plan — an artificial turf surface for the infield and out-of-play areas on Buffington’s baseball diamond.
“It was something for us to use as a basis, as a foundation,” said Buffington, 70, who also serves as Schuylkill Haven’s athletic director and does most of the maintenance work on the baseball field.
“When it comes to all the maintenance and the care, chasing puddles, the time it takes to do the infield, things like that … when we have a softball game the same day as a baseball game and it rains, we don’t have the manpower to take care of it unless I’m out there at 7:30 a.m. doing what I can until 4 o’clock and the other coaches pitch in when they get there. And none of us are getting any younger.
“It seemed like the right thing to do, if we could do it the right way. Dr. Fitzpatrick took care of all of that.”
What Fitzpatrick did was orchestrate a renovation plan that includes the installation of a new Shaw Sports Turf Legion NXT surface for football and soccer at Rotary Field; a makeover of the baseball field that includes the installation of Shaw Sports Turf’s TruHop material, a brick backstop behind home plate, safety netting and fencing in front of the dugouts; and the construction of a $2.5 million indoor training facility where the current outdoor basketball courts and tennis courts are located that will include a turf playing area of roughly 90 yards by 40 yards, a physical therapy area and a second-floor walking track that will be open to the public.
The resurfacing of Rotary Field began last week, while the baseball field renovations should begin in June and be completed by Sept. 1. Work on the indoor training facility will begin next spring.
All of the proposed renovations were officially approved at Schuylkill Haven’s monthly school board meeting Wednesday night.
“That’s what separates brick-and-mortar public schools from the competition,” Fitzpatrick said. “We do this for the kids. We give them the complete experience, not just sit in front of a computer at home.
“We give our kids the opportunity to do these things. Let’s give them the opportunity to do these things in a top-notch facility.”
History of Rotary Field
According to “The History of Schuylkill Haven Football,” compiled by Hurricanes assistant coach Mike Tracey, Rotary Field was established shortly after the football program began in 1925. The 10-acre plot of land where Rotary Field now sits was purchased by the Schuylkill Haven Rotary Club in 1926 for $1,033.35 from the Schuylkill County Poor Farm Directors, then turned over to the school district July 15, 1926. The first games were played on Rotary Field in 1932.
Over the years, countless improvements were made, with lights added in 1946 and a new fieldhouse containing locker rooms, restrooms and showers constructed in 1998.
In 2005, then superintendent Richard Rada spearheaded an effort to renovate Rotary Field after the grass-and-dirt playing surface deteriorated heavily over the previous 4-5 seasons. School officials had reported a minimum of 134 events took place on the field in the fall of 2005, between practices, scrimmages, band competitions and athletic events.
The school board and administration settled on a $1.4 million project to install a Beynon all-weather track and a Sportexe Omnigrass artificial playing surface.
The installation was completed in the summer of 2006, and the artificial surface has been used heavily for sporting events, practices, band competitions, physical education classes, community events and several other things over the past 14 years.
“First of all, kudos to the school board back in 2005 and the superintendent back then, Rich Rada, who had this vision,” Fitzpatrick said. “This thing is used constantly.
“It’s used all day, every day for (physical education classes). Every chance they get, they’re on the turf … middle school and high school kids, from fifth grade right up through seniors. We have evening activities covering every square inch of that turf.
“That field was installed in 2006 and back then, the field maintenance costs were exceeding $30,000 a year. You had to cut the grass, fertilize the grass, water the grass, re-plant the grass. By the middle of September and into October, it was gone. In today’s dollars, I’m sure those costs would exceed $40,000 or $50,000.”
The original Rotary Field turf had a 10-year shelf life. Instead, it lasted 14 sports seasons.
“In the grand scheme of things, if you get anything more than 10 years out of that carpet, you are saving money compared to what you spent on grass,” Fitzpatrick said. “We got 14.”
Fast forward to 2020.
The Schuylkill Haven School Board budgeted for the resurfacing of Rotary Field, and saved roughly $100,000 over the last several years to do so. Smart financial moves, however, made the project even more cost-efficient for the district.
First, Fitzpatrick negotiated sports marketing deals with CACL and Lehigh Valley Health Network to provide the district with revenue. The 11-year deal with CACL helped the district renovate the high school gymnasium, which was completed last summer and is now named the CACL Center.
The gymnasium renovations included the installation of a new floor, the removal of the stage area and bleachers, the installation of new bleachers, LED lights and sound system, and the purchase of new volleyball nets and apparatus and new wrestling mats.
The five-year deal with LVHN helped the district renovate the high school weight room, which is in its final phase. That project included the removal of the old hardwood floor, the installation of $4,000 worth of mirrors, a fresh coat of paint on the ceiling and walls and $5,000 worth of new equipment funded by LVHN every year of the deal.
Second, the school district sold advertising space on the back of the Rotary Field scoreboard. The sponsors include United Environment Services, Losch Services, Mystic Screen Printing, TB Landscaping, TBL Supply and Tokarick Welding.
“We anticipate the revenue from the signage in our stadiums to generate over the course of the next five years almost $300,000 worth of revenue specific to our sports programs,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s why we’re trying to make as many of these improvements as we can.”
As for the turf, Fitzpatrick went back to the original company, now called Shaw Sports Turf. Because Shaw is a COSTARS-approved company, the school district didn’t have to place the project out for bid. Fitzpatrick used that as leverage to get Shaw to agree to install Legion NXT, a top-of-the-line, 2.25-inch blade surface that’s a blended product and a lot softer than the original Sportexe Omnigrass surface.
If Schuylkill Haven put the project out for bid, a company could have come in at a lower price than Shaw originally, but then change-ordered the district to death and increased the overall cost.
With Shaw, the total cost of the resurfacing project at Rotary Field is $416,000.
“I said, ‘To get a better deal, logos in the end zone, interlocking SH in the center … for the price you quoted me for the cheaper turf, we want the better turf. They agreed to do it, if we didn’t go out to bid,” Fitzpatrick said.
Another advantage with going with Shaw is that the same installer, Grace Industries from the Bethlehem area, and the same project manager as 2005, Gary Souilliard, will be spearheading this project.
“He’s the same exact guy that did the original project,” Fitzpatrick said. “He’s familiar with our drainage system, he’s familiar with all the conduits we ran under the field for wiring.”
Schuylkill Haven also saved money by recycling the rubber fill from the old turf and will reuse as much of it as possible with the new surface. That move alone saved the district $40,000.
The old turf will be recycled, with a boatload of it to be stored on Schuylkill Haven’s campus. Some of it will be used for the baseball and softball field bullpens, donated to the Little League for use in their bullpens or given to alumni who return to visit the school.
The old turf was removed May 11-12, with the new turf to be laid down starting Monday. It will take two weeks to complete the installation, fill and final touches of the new turf. The Rotary Field project should be complete by June 1.
“All together, what the district anticipated being a $500,000-$600,000 project we were able to do for $400,000,” Fitzpatrick said.
When it came time to install new turf on Rotary Field, Fitzpatrick went to all three of his fall sports coaches — boys’ soccer coach Vanco Georgevic, girls’ soccer coach Scott Burcik and football coach Mike Farr — for input.
The results were three major changes: a wider playing surface for soccer; hashmarks, number arrows and a sideline coaches box for football; and a new color scheme that features alternating lime- and olive-colored turf, blue-colored end zones with HURRICANES in block letters and an interlocking SH in the center of the field instead of Hurricane warning flags.
“The first day I stepped foot on this campus, a fiery man named Vanco came up to me and said, ‘We have to make this field wider,’ ” Fitzpatrick said. “I listened to what he said.
“In fact, all of our coaches had significant input into this design. We sat down with our coaches and essentially said, ‘OK, we’re going to get one shot to do this right for the next dozen years or so, what do we need to do differently?’ ”
The change in the soccer lines is the biggest difference on the turf itself. When the initial turf was installed in 2005, the playing surface for soccer was only slightly wider than the football field and not wide enough to host league, district and state playoff soccer matches.
When the new turf is installed, the lines will stretch all the way out to the track, creating more in-play room. Georgevic said it will add roughly 8 yards to the width of the field, about 4 yards on each side. The benches will be placed on the track for games, and the end lines will be moved in slightly at both ends so the soccer goal and goalkeepers don’t need to worry about the football goal posts interfering with play.
“It’s going to be greatly appreciated,” said Georgevic, the only boys’ soccer coach Schuylkill Haven has had since starting its program in 1990. “Having the field a little wider actually will prevent some injuries because the players will be spaced out much more. Every little bit will help tremendously.
“It will improve the game as far as possession is concerned on the field. It will not be as tight, the players won’t be on top of each other. It’s a tremendous idea to widen it.”
Turf to cover
With the Rotary Field resurfacing project coming in under its anticipated budget, the opportunity was there for Schuylkill Haven to do more.
Fitzpatrick swung for the fences, and hit a home run.
He approached Buffington, who has compiled a 641-261 record in 42 seasons as the Hurricanes baseball coach, about installing a turf infield on the baseball field.
“From my standpoint, every project we do, I think long-term investment. What’s the cost savings to this?” Fitzpatrick said.
“There is nothing more maintenance intense than a baseball infield, particularly the size of a high school baseball field. We fielded some complaints last year. Some of the teams said we were getting bad lips at the end of the grass and there’s some bad hops. And if we didn’t have a coach that spends 40 hours a week working on that field, it would never be as good as it is.
“So, I explored the idea of maybe a turf infield.”
Convincing the 70-year-old Buffington, who is about as old-school as you get from a coaching standpoint, was the biggest hurdle.
“He said, ‘If I don’t want it, we’ll stop looking into it,’ ” Buffington said. “The more I thought about it … I talked with our coaches and different coaches in our league. I made numerous phone calls to places that already had it.
“I called the coach at Ephrata numerous times, talked with him for hours. He told me the good, the bad and the ugly about it. He’s the guy that really swayed my decision.
“Everybody I talked to basically said you’re crazy if you don’t put it in.”
The result was a renovation project that helped Fitzpatrick and the school district not only address safety concerns at the baseball field, but resolve some water drainage issues that the Borough of Schuylkill Haven had wanted the district to correct.
Off the field, the installation of a turf surface will help the district develop a water remediation system that will funnel most of the water coming off the high school parking lot into the creek behind the baseball field instead of having it run down behind the high school onto Paxson Avenue.
On the field, a Shaw Sports Turf TruHop surface — the same one used by MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks and partially designed by Hall of Famer John Smoltz — will cover the infield and the foul territory and out-of-play areas.
The entire area will be turf — green turf where the grass should be, brown turf for the bases, pitcher’s mound and areas near the dugouts.
Fencing will be installed in front of the current dugouts, with a gate for the players to enter and exit, and stretch to the area where the existing out-of-play lines intersect behind home plate. A 3-foot-high brick backstop that looks similar to Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park will be installed, with netting stretching up to protect fans from foul balls.
Down the road, Fitzpatrick envisions the installation of bleachers behind the backstop to create a grandstand-like effect.
For Buffington, he wanted to make sure the backstop was far enough behind home plate to maintain the strategy involved when a pitched ball gets past the catcher, unlike backstops at several Schuylkill League fields that are right up against the catcher and umpire.
Schuylkill Haven’s baseball field is one of the few in the area without a backstop, with wild pitches and passed balls often rolling out of play.
“To me, in baseball, if a ball gets by the catcher far enough, you should get a base,” Buffington said. “We’ve worked hard to make sure our catchers are good defensive catchers because they’re going to play half of their games at Schuylkill Haven. For me, it had to be back far enough.
“(The new backstop) is back plenty far. There’s going to be no doubt that a runner is going to get at least one base.”
Another stipulation for Buffington’s approval was the use of metal spikes. With TruHop, the coach got his wish.
“I said to Dr. Fitzpatrick and all the different companies and representatives, I don’t want anything to do with it unless we can wear metal spikes,” Buffington said. “Watching college games, they don’t wear rubber spikes or rubber-soled shoes. Our outfield is still grass and we need metal spikes.”
Construction on the baseball field will begin when Rotary Field is complete. Should there be a Schuylkill County Teener League season, the Schuylkill Haven teams will play at Cressona. Buffington anticipates the baseball field project to be completed by Aug. 31.
“All of the credit goes to Shawn,” Buffington said. “He’s the guy that initiated it, he’s the guy that put it all together from A to Z. I was in on some of it, and he ran ideas by me, (assistant coach and assistant high school principal) Dennis (Siket) and (high school principal) Matt Horoschak. But he deserves all the credit.
“He took the ball and ran and kept on running, kept on running. Maintenance wise, cost wise, it makes so much sense.”
As part of the baseball field project, Fitzpatrick approached softball coach Garry Adams about a turf infield for his diamond.
Schuylkill Haven’s softball field, located beyond right field of the baseball field, has an all-dirt or “skin” infield. Adams chose to keep it dirt, for the time being.
Instead, the softball field will get the infield mix removed from the baseball field to resurface the infield and the district will construct a new batting cage with turf surfaces.
“The biggest thing we want to look at with softball is getting them a more significant batting cage and getting turf in their batting cage,” Fitzpatrick said. “We gave the coach the option to look at turf in their infield, and that may be an option down the road.”
Capitalizing on the bond market
The cost of the renovations to the baseball field will be just under $500,000, Fitzpatrick said. As he explored ways to pay for it, he realized the district was able to do much, much more.
The renovations to the outdoor athletic facilities aren’t the only major projects on the district’s agenda at the moment. The district plans to relocate the trophy cases in the high school lobby to the gymnasium area, creating a Hall of Fame-type appearance, and turn the high school lobby into an Internet Cafe of sorts that includes high-back seating, lounge areas, a coffee shop and workstations.
Also on the docket are a new cooling system for the elementary center, the construction of a high school STEM lab, library improvements and the continuation of the district’s customized learning program that began with flexible instruction training for all of its teachers last fall.
In 2009, Schuylkill Haven took out a series of bonds to help pay for the construction of the Zwerling Auditorium, the new Central Office facility, the academic wing above the Central Office and the eighth-grade wing of the high school.
With interest rates dropping, Fitzpatrick explored refinancing those loans.
“We’re trying to capitalize on a bond market right now that’s very good,” Fitzpatrick said. “I don’t want this to fall on the backs of the taxpayers by increasing their annual payment for debt service.”
Fitzpatrick coordinated the $33 million construction of the Tilden Township Elementary School for the Hamburg Area School District during his tenure at the Berks County school and both districts use the same financial advisors. When Schuylkill Haven’s financial advisor showed Fitzpatrick the refinance numbers, it was full speed ahead.
The district took the series of bonds, which had nine years left on them, and refinanced them. They were able to borrow $5 million for all of the projects, extend the loans out three years and keep the monthly debt payment exactly the same.
For the taxpayers, that’s a ton of improvements without any increase in taxes.
The $5 million in finances will also let Schuylkill Haven, which had planned to pay for the Rotary Field project out of its capital reserves, to keep its coffers full for future endeavors.
“We’re able to refinance our current debt, add on this $5 million for all these projects and keep our monthly payment the exact same payment that it is now … and only extend our debt out three years,” Fitzpatrick said. “By refinancing our old debt, and building in these projects, we’re confident that every single project that we’re doing is going to long outlive the 12 years of debt payment.
“In reality, everything that we’re doing is tied into a bigger picture that is going to long outlive that debt service. The monthly payment will stay exactly the same for the school district.”
Fitzpatrick understands that there will be criticism for making all of these improvements as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic and his students are learning from home.
He applauded the members of the Schuylkill Haven school board for sharing his vision, continuing to look toward the future and taking the steps necessary to see all of these projects become reality.
“I think we’re going to go through some rough times in the next year or so with our overall economy,” Fitzpatrick said. “If we’re truly driving beyond the hood of the car here, and looking out five years, 10 years, 20 years, people are someday going to say the same thing they said about Rich Rada’s turf. I’ve never once heard somebody say I wish we wouldn’t have put turf on Rotary Field. I’ve never, ever heard somebody say that.
“I believe that there will be a year or two where people may be critical of the decision to move forward with these projects in uncertain economic times. But, quite frankly, the monthly payment is no different than what we’ve been paying. So that money would still have been due no matter how uncertain the times would have been.”
Indoor performance facility
Thus came the third phase of Schuylkill Haven’s outdoor renovations — the construction of an indoor performance facility.
The indoor performance facility will be a two-floor, steel structure that will be built where the existing outdoor basketball and tennis courts are — up the hill from Rotary Field and directly behind the home dugout of the baseball field.
Constructed in the 1960s and at one time maintained by the Schuylkill Haven Recreation Department, the courts and the fencing around them have fallen into disrepair over the years and are only really utilized by middle school and high school physical education classes.
Repairing them and putting in new courts just wasn’t cost-effective, Fitzpatrick said.
“The courts … they’re pretty dilapidated now,” Fitzpatrick said. “They’ve served our community really, really well. But, unfortunately, for us to spend money and rehab a space like that and continue to keep it outdoor basketball courts … we just weren’t seeing the kids use it like we thought we would.”
Set up similar to the dome at the Spooky Nook complex in Lancaster County, the facility will have a new turf-covered playing surface of roughly 90 yards by 40 yards with a ceiling height of 32 feet that can be utilized for both sports and by physical education classes, a weight room and a physical therapy/rehabilitation area for the school’s athletic trainer, Mike Cerasoli.
The building would be heated by natural gas, have insulation built into the walls and contain LED lighting.
The second floor will contain a walking path that will be open year-round to the public, and an outside deck area facing the baseball field for use by media and scouts.
Fitzpatrick said the design for the building will be finished this fall and should go out to bid during the 2020-21 school year. He’d like to see construction start in March 2021 with the potential for the building to be open and ready for business in the fall of 2021.
“I feel this is an investment in that our kids are going to get to use it during the day for phys ed. Obviously, our community is going to have access to it in the winter,” Fitzpatrick said.
“Our community loves walking on our track. In the warm weather, it’s packed. We wanted to be able to share this with the community and give people a place to go in the winter.”
Fitzpatrick envisions a facility that is used not only by the school district’s athletic teams, but rented out for use by travel soccer teams, travel baseball teams and other recreational organizations.
He believes the facility can generate a substantial amount of revenue for the district and be a facility that people will travel to Schuylkill Haven to utilize.
“I’ve never seen anything like this at a high school,” Fitzpatrick said. “I believe, over time, this will pay for itself.
“There’s nothing like that around here. We thought this might be a great opportunity to invest in the community and provide a product that will be used hard.”
Down the road
Fitzpatrick’s plans to renovate Rotary Field aren’t finished.
The district would like to flip the current bleacher alignment, moving the press box and home bleachers to the middle school side of the complex.
Thus, when Schuylkill Haven hosts football games, soccer matches, track meets and other events, the “home” side would be closest to the middle school, and the “away” side would be near the top entrance from the high school parking lot.
When that move is made, the district would purchase bleachers that go higher, similar to grandstands at Blue Mountain and Pottsville. Rotary Field has seating from goal line to goal line on the home side and covering 75 yards on the away side, but the bleachers only go 10 rows high.
“That project is down the road, with no timeline,” Fitzpatrick said. “The one thing I feel we’re missing at Rotary Field is seating that’s high enough to take in a better perspective of the game.
“The biggest issue I have is that we have 100 yards worth of bleachers that only go 10 rows high. Whereas, I’d like to someday see us narrow that down to 40 yards of bleachers that go higher and give the press and media a higher perspective.
“No one wants to sit at the 2-yard line at a high school football game three rows off the field when the two teams are playing at the other end. It’s not ideal.”
The big advantage with that move is that under the current alignment, the sun is directly in the face of the fans sitting on the home sideline and the workers/media in the press box when Rotary Field hosts a late afternoon soccer game and during home football games in August and September.
The school district also gets complaints from borough residents about the “noise” from Rotary Field since the commentary from the public address announcer and music from the band project toward a majority of the borough homes instead of back into the school campus.
“The biggest reason we talked about flipping sides is because of the sun,” Fitzpatrick said. “Our soccer fans, if they have a 4:30 start time, they’re staring directly into the sunlight.
“Also, the noise. We would really love to see the press box on the other side of the field to point the sound away from the residents of town. I get calls from the residents asking ‘Can you please turn down the public address announcer?’, ‘Can you please stop playing music during the games?’ And they’re right.
“We’re smack dab in the middle of town. If we were to redirect that sound into the campus, it would be absorbed.”
To make those moves, Schuylkill Haven would have to re-do its current six-pole lighting system, a project Fitzpatrick doesn’t want to tackle right now. He said when it’s time to install new lights at Rotary Field, the district will go with an LED system that uses four poles instead of six and make all the bleacher changes at the same time.
“For us to tackle a project like that, we’d have to get into the lighting, and I don’t want to do that yet,” Fitzpatrick said. “Right now we want to focus on a safe surface. We’ll take care of that. Anything we would do with the bleachers and the press box, we’re going to delay that by a couple of years.
“I just don’t want to put it on our plate right now. I think it’s irresponsible for us to do that with all of the other projects we want to get done.”
Buffington, a retired high school social studies teacher and the school’s athletic director since 1999, said the vision Fitzpatrick and the school board have toward improving Schuylkill Haven’s facilities is impressive.
“Shawn presented everything to the school board, the numbers were right, and we could do it without increasing taxes and not taking from our capital reserves,” Buffington said. “It’s quite a substantial undertaking.”
Fitzpatrick said the improvements are all part of his goal to educate the whole child and make Schuylkill Haven a district that people look at and say, “Wow. Look at what they’re doing.”
“I said to the school board, where do you want to go?” Fitzpatrick said. “If you share in this vision, the sky’s the limit. We’ll be a district that people are driving in to visit.
“I want our campus to be packed all the time. This is the community’s campus. I love to walk around here and see things happening.”
Contact the writer: [email protected]; 570-628-6026; @pubsportsboss on Twitter