As he entered the visitors’ locker room midway through his first playoff game leading West Forsyth’s football team, Wolverines head coach Shawn Cahill found himself longing to return to his home field.
In a game marked by slick field conditions, West still held favored Mill Creek to a 10-0 lead at halftime, but ultimately took a 29-14 loss on Nov. 10. Cahill doesn’t necessarily pin the defeat on the grass surface, but admits it didn’t make his team’s task any easier.
“The dew gets on there (and) it’s slippery,” Cahill said. “I said at halftime last year — I was missing the turf. We were kind of sliding around a little bit.”
Come this fall, Cahill and the rest of the county’s coaches may miss their respective home stadiums even more when they have to leave them. Forsyth County schools all have had artificial turf at their stadiums for the last decade. This summer all those fields are receiving upgrades that leaders hope will better serve the athletes that play on them.
In recent years, Forsyth County schools have played a surface made by Sprinturf, with black rubber pellets serving as the field’s infill. The turf’s wear and tear started to show after all the years of use, and in May, county voters approved a special-purpose local-option sales tax – commonly known as a SPLOST – that funded the turf upgrades and other construction projects.
“It was at the end of its lifecycle,” West Forsyth athletic director Brett Phipps said. “All the artificial grass was pulling out of it. The black pebbles were gone. It was time for it to happen after playing 10 years on it.”
As the county’s newest campus, Denmark High School was the first recipient of the new turf, which is produced by Shaw Sports Turf. Installation has begun or is now finished at the other schools in the county.
With 10 years of technology advances, the new turf has some features that the schools are excited about. In addition to better cushioning, the most significant improvement has to do with cooling, as artificial turf typically has issues staying at a comfortable temperature during the spring and summer months. With the new product, schools are hoping heat-related problems are a thing of the past.
“The infill mix is encapsulated,” Forsyth County Schools athletic director Nathan Turner said. “It’s green-coated, encapsulated rubber. Basically what it does is it doesn’t allow the rubber to absorb the heat rays from the sun, so it will keep the field cooler. It’s a little bit thinner and finer-grained than what we had. It works its way into the carpet just a little bit more, into the root base of the carpet mat, which gives you a little bit more of a true, grassier feel.”
Forsyth Central's newly-laid turf field seen from above. Photo courtesy Brad Bretz.
Phipps and the county’s other athletic directors will get another added bonus during the spring sports season. While football and soccer have always had their layouts imprinted on the turf in the past, lacrosse was always tougher to accommodate, with different dimensions for boys and girls. Thanks to lacrosse dimensions recently being standardized between the two, there will be less maintenance to prepare the fields for those events.
“We’re only going to have one set of lines out there,” Phipps said. “It’s going to be less confusing for everyone. A lot of that’s going to be sewn in, and we don’t have to have it painted every year. That is a cost to the schools. It’s not cheap to have it painted every year, because it fades away after about six months or so.”
Getting new turf also gave schools the opportunity to be creative, with each one coming up with different results for designs. South Forsyth wanted emphasis on its script ‘SF’ font. North Forsyth wanted purple end zones after painting them that color last year. Forsyth Central colored its end zones and brought its red and black color scheme to the forefront. On all the fields, the colors are more vibrant.
“Each principal and each athletic director was able to sit down, talk and share with their coaches and come up with the best design,” Turner said. “It was really neat to see each school have their process of going through and designing.”
During Lambert’s recent state championship boys lacrosse season, the Longhorns played on turf for almost the entire year, with the state championship game at Kennesaw State being the sole exception.
To prepare for that game, director of lacrosse Rich Wehman had his team practice on the grass field at South Forsyth Middle School, and the experience gave the Longhorns a new appreciation for turf.
“It’s easier to play on turf for the kids,” Wehman said. “The scooping, knowing what the ball’s going to do, there’s more consistency on the turf. I’ve walked on the new turf out there — it’s got more spring, so that would take some adjusting for the kids, but they’ll figure that out pretty quick.”
As a longtime assistant at Lanier prior to taking the job at West, Cahill did not have the luxury of turf – every Gwinnett County public school still plays on grass. But he’s glad now have it on his main field, especially on rainy days.
“We have two grass practice fields that we go down on 90 percent of the time we practice,” he said. “It’s nice to have (turf) it when it rains. We still have a place to practice and don’t have to go down on the mud.”
Along with all the other advantages the turf is set to bring, longevity is another one stands out.
“Everybody will be on the same timetable as we start looking at this process again in 10, 11, maybe 12 more years,” Turner said. “We hope the technology’s better now (so) that we can get a few more years.”