There’s nothing more Jim Christian loves as a groundskeeper at Tracy Area Public Schools than a “greener than green” football field. Needless to say, he might have to be flexible with his goals next spring.
After the Minnesota State High School League voted to shift volleyball and football to the spring (March-May) and push the regular spring sports season later in the year because of COVID-19, the best Christian can hope for when the new “football season” is here is a dry field.
“With our soil in southwest Minnesota, if it’s really wet those cleats will take the grass right out,” said Christian, who has held onto a video of him plowing slushy snow at the schools after the May 1, 2017, blizzard. “We’ve had some games like that when it’s wet, and we’ve seen games with more injuries, so that’s a concern, too. But we could use an unseasonable spring — dry and a little bit warm to firm that sod up. We’ll keep the field in great shape and hope for the best this spring.”
Ironically, the field, which has a clay base, is looking better now than it ever has, Christian said. He said the field as of now might be in the best condition he’s ever seen it.
“This season has been amazing for grass,” he said. “It’s absolutely beautiful out there now; there’s not a square inch missing a blade of grass. It was ready for a beautiful season this fall, but I guess we’ll have to wait until spring. It’ll be interesting.”
A lot of work goes into preparing the field for each upcoming season. Christian said the blades on the mowers are sharpened special for the football field, and it’s mowed multiple times a week to keep it as green as possible.
“We have to mow it constantly; every few days you have to mow it and keep the blades sharp,” he said. “It’s a lot more work than you’d think. To keep that field in the best shape you can takes a lot of mowing — you have to keep it a certain length to keep that greenness to it. And we fertilize that field five times a year; it’s well-groomed and taken care of.”
Christian is all too aware the football field isn’t immune to Mother Nature’s whims. There have been recent games played in pouring rain that resulted in a green field being transformed into a mud bath.
“There was a game we had with Murray County (Central) in the pouring rain and the field was pretty much black between the hash marks,” he recalled. “But who knows this spring. Everybody knows what sod is like when the frost comes out — it’s just like a sponge. I would imagine there’s gonna be reconstruction to the grass pretty much guaranteed.”
Christian, who is in his 12th year as head groundskeeper for the school district and is also charged with clearing snow from all the parking areas at the schools (even in May if one recalls from 2017), said he was in disbelief when he heard this year’s football season wasn’t going to have its traditional start.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “(TMB varsity football) coach (Jason Kainz) texted me about two weeks ago thanking me for having the practice field ready to go for their camp, and about how nice it looked, and I told him, ‘I just hope and pray you get to play football this fall,’ and he said, ‘You and me both.’ It’s a sad deal, but it’s just something we’re gonna have to go through. It’s something we’ve never had to do before.”
As Activities Director at Tracy Area High School, Bill Tauer is already looking ahead to a spring season that will feature football games on field conditions that will range anywhere from frozen to soggy.
He knows that there will be obstacles to playing football in the spring.
“Playing baseball, it’s easier to get on those fields than the football field without tearing it up,” he said. “We don’t have turf like the bigger schools have, so there will be some challenges. It’s hard to envision seeing football practices in mid-March; most years, we’re inside for baseball, softball and track for four to six weeks — I don’t know what its gonna look like for football when the frost comes out of the ground. I feel sorry for our groundskeeper, Jim Christian, and what he’ll have to deal with this spring.”
Tauer is in the same boat as the student-athletes when it comes to picturing what spring 2021 will look like.
“None of us have a crystal ball,” he said. “We don’t know if this will be any different come spring.”
A member of the MSHSL Board, Tauer voted against pushing football and volleyball to spring during last Tuesday’s virtual MSHSL board meeting.
The vote to move football to spring was 13-5 in favor. An earlier motion to play football in the fall with restrictions failed on a 12-6 vote. Tauer thought if guidelines were followed, it would be reasonable to get some kind of fall season in.
“I think what we did this summer worked with the guidelines we had in place for coaches — I thought we could carry that over to the fall and have a chance of having some kind of traditional season of some type,” Tauer said.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, Minnesota is one of 31 states that have pushed back fall sports and is among 10 that have moved football to a different season.