School set for greener pastures

The Baltimore Sun

Jeremiah Conway has his senior year to look forward to - prom, graduation and eventually college. Also, Conway will have an added bonus as a senior football player at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School: a new, state-of-the-art field, thanks to a $1 million donation from a Baltimore Ravens foundation.

"I'm happy, it's a good way to go out - on the [artificial] turf, not playing at other schools," the 18-year-old team captain said.

Mervo athletes, including soccer, lacrosse and football players, will have new field turf, extra bleachers to double the seating and a ticket booth. The renovations will turn the dry, dusty and outdated field into a "first-class facility," said Robert Wade, director of athletics for Baltimore public schools.

At yesterday's groundbreaking ceremony to dig up the old grass, only one of seven shovels penetrated the hard surface, releasing a cloud of chalky dust onto the pep rally-like gathering that included high school players, cheerleaders, the city's mayor and Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister.

Next week, Sportexe will take over the field and begin renovations that are scheduled to be completed by Aug. 16, the first day of practice for the fall 2008 season for Mervo's Mustangs.

Patricia Johnson, Mervo's athletic director, said the grass field has no drainage. "You can see how rock hard it is," she said, adding that injuries had included sprains. "It's never taken to seed."

After playing on the field for the past three years, Conway said the field is even more treacherous in the rain. "When we practice in the rain ... people slip and fall, it hurts plays," he said. The new turf "will make practice a lot smoother."

The money is being donated by the Baltimore Ravens All Community Team Foundation with contributions from players, the owner and the NFL Youth Football Fund.

Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister - who gave a six-figure donation to the project, but would not say exactly how much - agreed that a proper field has its advantages.

"When you walk out on the field and you don't have a center and it's all dirt, you try and avoid those areas," he said. "When the field is nice and level all the way around, you know you feel comfortable - it looks better, you feel better."

Not only was the field in need of renovation, the current stadium was too small to hold regular crowds. Fans were often denied entry at halftime.

From 2000 to 2005, teams that use the field had to play all their games on the road because of renovations to the running track. Players had to cross Hillen Road to Montebello Lake to practice. Head football coach John Blake said there were concerns with teams crossing the street.

And when the rubberized track was completed, student athletes were still left without a proper field.

Yesterday, Mayor Sheila Dixon said "the field wasn't appropriate" and acknowledged that the city had failed to equip students with a proper place to play.

"We had a whole graduating class that couldn't use the field," Johnson added.

Wade said that many of the city's school fields need renovating. Only the Lumsden-Scott Stadium at the Polytechnic Institute/Western High School campus has an advanced field with the safer, low-maintenance turf, which was also funded by the Baltimore Ravens in 2006.

Ravens President Dick Cass said Mervo was chosen because of the "great need" and because of the added use by the youth Northwood Football League. Also, the facility has lights for Friday and Saturday night games. "Friday night football is a community event," Cass said.

Wade said residents can also use the field.

Blake said he hopes the new stadium will entice potential players to come to Mervo who would otherwise play for private schools with better facilities.

"We've been in the playoffs for the last three years," he said, but haven't been able to pull off a championship. But now, "we'll have one of the best facilities.

"We're really proud to be here," he said. Believing in home field advantage, Blake dared rival teams to "come up the hill, come see us."

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