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Publish date: Aug 19, 2010

Turf monster: West Texas A&M opens huge athletics complex

By David Pickle

After years of struggling with less-than-adequate playing and practice facilities, West Texas A&M recently finished an important turf battle.

This fall, the Division II institution will open classes sporting a new $21.8 million athletics complex that features a whopping 19 acres (800,000 feet) of synthetic turf – the biggest collection of artificial playing surfaces in North America.

The project would be major for any college athletics program, and it is especially big in the context of Division II. The benefits, however, will extend beyond the athletics program and will support the university’s general student body and the Canyon, Texas, community.

Buffalo Sports Park

The new complex, known as the Buffalo Sports Park, will feature new competition facilities for baseball, soccer, softball, and track and field, along with much-improved practice fields for football. Even the marching band will be in a better place, with opportunities to practice on a lined field.

The entire complex will take up about 45 acres, but the most remarkable figure pertains to the artificial turf. The 19-acre figure is sure to dazzle, but West Texas A&M President Pat O’Brien stressed the practicality of the school’s approach.

“We’ll save 1.2 million gallons of water, and that’s very important in our region,” he said. “We’re a semi-arid region. Water is precious. So we’re just not going to have to use the water that we have been using in the past to maintain the soccer field and the football practice fields and the softball field.”

Not only is the region semi-arid, O’Brien said it is semi-arid in an inconvenient way. Rain seldom falls – the annual average is about 19 inches – but when it does, it often comes in torrents. Thus, actual grass surfaces in the area often find themselves in one of two conditions: overly saturated or parched.

Those circumstances have affected both the school’s intramural program and varsity athletics. Baseball was often a double victim, losing practice time to spring rains and early-spring snowfall (and snowmelt) and then facing a 25-minute commute to a stadium in Amarillo for “home” games with virtually no student support. Now, rain drains away and snow can be scraped from the field to enable practice when the weather warms. Plus, the team now will play real home games in front of other students.

Soccer field logo

The solution for varsity athletics also will be a boon for intramurals. Previously, only one intramural field was available for football and soccer. “So the students, if they wanted to participate in intramural sports, the time that was available was from 6 p.m. to midnight and their season would be only three games,” O’Brien said. “The same was true for softball. We just didn’t have the facilities. So what we wanted to do was put into place facilities that could meet the needs of our general student body and our competitive sports.”

The athletics complex will join the university in other ways. “There’s a grand lawn in the complex where we can hold concerts or people can go out and tailgate, or they can just sit out in the grass underneath the trees,” O’Brien said. “We’re putting a lot of trees in, over 300 of them. In addition to that, we have a jogging trail that goes around the whole complex, and that’s going to be lighted and available for the student body 24 hours a day.”

Athletics Director Michael McBroom said student anticipation for the new facility is high with the beginning of school approaching. But he said that excitement also is high throughout the Canyon community, where use is planned from youth league games to senior citizen strolls on the perimeter trail.

“One of the principles we have in Division II is community engagement,” McBroom said, “and if we can get young kids on our campus early and enjoy the fields and have a big-time experience, then that’s good for them and the university.”

O’Brien said he also envisions other outside uses ranging from high school playoffs to Division II regional competition in various sports. He’s even considering a bid for a Division II National Championships Festival somewhere down the line.

The baseball field has already been named for benefactors – the David and Myrt Wilder Field – and McBroom said similar opportunities are available for other fields and for the complex in general.

Beyond donations, the cost is being met through student fees that were approved in November 2008. A $5 per hour fee, capped at 12 hours per student, was implemented last year, and another $5 per hour will be added this year. The additional $10 per hour will pay for construction and maintenance of the facility, including replacement of the artificial surfaces when that need arises years from now.

McBroom said the school was motivated to take advantage of the slumping economy and chose to install all of the fields at once, rather than phasing them in, which would be the traditional approach for a project of this sort. Construction began in January and will be complete by November.

In the end, this truly was a case where visionaries didn’t let any grass grow under their feet – in more ways than one.