Playing on artificial surfaces, whether it be field hockey or soccer or lacrosse or football, has been considered a treat for Carroll County high school sports teams ever since turf fields began making their way across Maryland at least a quarter-century ago.
Any team that makes it to a state semifinal or final in those sports is almost assuredly playing at a stadium that features artificial grass. The Carroll team hopes to practice on turf in the days leading up to the big game, but even so it usually faces an opponent that has been doing so all season long. The adjustment can prove costly in a state championship setting.
Of course, the Carroll team should have been playing on turf all along. But the county is behind the times when it comes to having public high school stadiums ― heck, any of Carroll’s recreational park facilities would do ― with turf fields.
The COVID-19 pandemic shuffled this year’s athletics schedule around, and the fall sports season started Friday. Football kicked off with six teams in action, and they played their season openers in Howard County in part to preserve Carroll’s grass fields (they’ve only recently been clear of most of the snow that blanketed the county a few weeks ago and most county teams have spent significant time practicing on parking lots).
Field hockey is playing its entire season at Woodbine’s Western Regional Park, where football had its Week 1 games, to use the venue’s turf fields.
Liberty and Westminster each won field hockey state titles in 2019 at Washington College, home of the annual state tournament. It’s a trek to Chestertown and the Eastern Shore, but worth it to play the biggest games of the season on equal footing. Carroll’s success in the sport should be celebrated more with the notion that county teams go from their lumpy, bumpy, soggy fields to the fast turf tracks come playoff time.
And that’s in October and November, usually drier months. But at least the March and April games will be played on turf. Just not in this county.
Liberty and Westminster also had football teams make the state quarterfinals in 2019. Away they went for road games, the Lions visiting Elkton in Cecil County and the Owls traveling to Mervo near Baltimore City.
Wouldn’t you know, both high schools had stadiums with artificial turf?
Elkton is one of four high schools in Cecil County, which is outside of the top 10 in terms of Maryland’s most populous counties. Yet the Golden Elks play on a beautiful turf field at their stadium located in a quiet neighborhood off the main drag.
The soccer and lacrosse state tournaments have been using facilities with turf fields for years. Century won the Class 2A state title, and Francis Scott Key played in the 1A final, to finish the 2019 boys soccer season at Loyola Maryland’s sparkling Ridley Athletic Complex.
Football’s state finals were played at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in 2019, and a few months earlier the lacrosse state finals went down at turf-ready Paint Branch High School in Montgomery County.
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Carroll’s neighbors have created quite the border of high school stadiums equipped with turf fields. Frederick County has a handful of schools with turf. All 14 of Howard County’s high schools (12 public, two private) have them. Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have their share as well. And that doesn’t even count the many recreational facilities with turf fields in those counties.
Sure, Carroll can claim local turf access at Gerstell Academy or McDaniel College. Renting that space can be costly, though, and rescheduling games also poses challenges. The time for this county’s high school stadiums to include artificial, multi-purpose playing surfaces is past due.
All is not lost, with Coppermine 4 Seasons and the former North Carroll High School both gunning to have turf fields ready to go. Coppermine’s plan for its turf field is expected to be finished by May.
It would be fun to see a big county sporting event take place at either site (Powelson Field at the old North Carroll venue is still one of the best around). Safer, too, given the condition many of the grass fields are in by the end of some seasons. Of course, it will cost Carroll some money to do so.
Given the cost of making over the stadiums, about $1 million give or take a few truckloads of dirt, it’s understandable that all seven public high schools can’t cut ribbons at the same time. But a plan needs to be put in place, and fast-tracked, to give Carroll’s athletes, from the recreational to high school level, a chance to compete on equal ground.
Playing on turf fields shouldn’t be a treat for Carroll County high school athletes. It should be an expectation.
Pat Stoetzer is the TImes’ sports editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.