High school athletic facilities undergo major transformations

·7 min read

Aug. 27—Teachers and books are without a doubt the main ingredients for a successful educational program.

But not all learning experiences are confined to the classroom.

With that in mind, a number of area school districts have either completed, are working on or just started the process of updating and renovating their athletic facilities.

It ranges from the additions of a track, soccer and softball facility at Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin to an upgrade of the track as well as the baseball and softball diamonds at Georgetown-Ridge Farm and also includes a makeover of the gymnasium at Salt Fork.

These projects come on the heels of the completed athletic project at Westville where the baseball, football and softball fields were completely renovated with field turf, to the addition of an all-weather track as well as a new building for locker rooms, concessions, a weight room and wrestling room.

"There is some money that is available that hasn't been there in the past," said Georgetown-Ridge Farm principal Kevin Thomas. "It's kind of keeping up with the Joneses type of thing to an extent, but more important, it's about having good quality facilities for our students, staff and community. We owe them that."

For Scott Watson, superintendent for Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin, the changes at his school started because of typical spring weather in Illinois.

"A few years ago, it seemed like every time we had home games scheduled for baseball and softball it would rain. Our baseball team found a way to play on our field behind the school, but our softball team, which played at the park would get rained out or we would have to play the game on the road. Our girls were losing the opportunity to play games at home," Watson said. "So, our conversation as a school district started with trying to build a softball diamond on campus."

Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin had Byrne-Jones Sports Construction start the process of designing the new softball field, but it didn't stop there.

"At board meeting back in 2021, one of the board members asked about the cost of adding a track to the facility," Watson said. "And then the idea of adding a soccer field in the middle of the track was discussed. So, we contacted Byrne-Jones again and got a new price.

"Basically, what started as just a softball field turned into a full athletic complex. We are also going to add a building for storage, concessions and restrooms. We are still finalizing those details."

The funding for the projects at Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin have come from a combination of ESSER funds, which are Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding for COVID-19, and working cash bonds from the taxpayers in the district.

"Originally, we were going to use those working cash bonds to pay for new doors and windows in the district," Watson said. "When the Federal Government started handing out all of those ESSER funds, we used those to take care of the doors and windows and we just had our working cash bonds just sitting out there.

"One of our board members suggested there was no better use for those bonds than our athletic facility, especially the all-weather track. That is something that will not only be visible in our community, but it's something that everyone in our community can come and use throughout the year."

Watson also added that moving softball and soccer onto the Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin campus would enhance student safety.

"Having a soccer field in Rossville and a softball field in Alvin has been helpful for our programs, but we really don't want our kids traveling off of campus for practices and games," he said. "Keeping them here on our campus is the safer option and we are giving them a top-notch facility."

Currently, there are no plans at Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin to make any changes to the football or baseball fields.

"When everything is done, I'm probably going to ask Byrne-Jones for an idea of what it would cost to do our baseball and football fields," Watson said. "Just so that I have that information when I get asked about that in the future."

While the changes at Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin have been about adding to their facility, the focus at Georgetown-Ridge Farm is about upgrading the current situation.

"We used to be one of the main hosts for the county track meet," Thomas said. "At one time, our track was considered one of the best in the county."

Over the last 20 years, the Vermilion County Track Meet has been held at either Salt Fork or Hoopeston Area.

"We haven't even hosted a dual meet in the last four or five years," Thomas said. "We definitely needed to upgrade our track. It's been long overdue. And we are also adding a pole vault pad as we have some up-and-coming pole vaulters in our program."

The changes for the baseball and softball diamonds was not as critically needed.

"I think our baseball and softball diamonds were good in the past, but any time you can add FieldTurf — it's a definite upgrade," said Thomas. "We tore both fields down to the dirt and installed new drainage systems on both. And then we will put down the FieldTurf on the infields and sod the outfields."

The renovations at Georgetown-Ridge Farm are part of a bigger project at the school.

"Our theme for this school year is 'Back on Track'," said Thomas. "We want to get back to where we were pre-COVID. Part of that is promoting school spirit and getting more kids involved in athletics. I've already seen it here at the start of the athletic season, our kids are walking around the campus for practices and seeing a different school.

"When you improved things on campus, it build school spirit and kids want to be a part of it."

According to Thomas, there are no plans to host a track meet this spring but that could change. And while the junior high baseball and softball teams have been relocated to Ridge Farm for their fall season, the plan is for both the baseball and softball field to be playable this coming spring.

Additionally, Thomas is hopeful that Georgetown-Ridge Farm can host future IHSA events in baseball, softball or track.

"Those type of things allow you to show off your campus to people outside of Vermilion County," he said.

Improving the current facility was also the focus at Salt Fork this summer with the gymnasium that was built in 1955.

"It was definitely in need of some updating," said Dustin Dees, the athletics director at Salt Fork. "The floor and the paint scheme was changed after the co-op was finalized, but everything else was pretty much the same as when it was first built. We had an opportunity to get a building grant from the state and renovating the gym was high on our list.

"We wanted to give the gym a facelift, but also wanted to keep some of the uniqueness. Keeping the old school wood bleachers in the upper deck was a priority."

The process for Salt Fork started with tearing out all of the old bleachers in the lower level. Next came a flooring company that sanded down the floor and painted into a new scheme including the new school logos. Brand new lower bleachers were then installed, while all of the wooden bleachers in the upper level were refurbished. Additionally, new side backboards were installed along with LED lights and a new sound system.

"We did a lot of work in house," said Dees, adding that only the floor, the new lower bleachers and the sound system was done by people outside of the district. "We have some really skilled guys working in our district. The custodial staffs from both campuses played a role in this renovation."