Ron Agostini

Protect what turf?

It's a fundamental life lesson pounded into us not long after our first breath.

Parents, teachers, elders, coaches and anyone in positions of authority press home the point with fundamental simplicity. The message remains clear, time-honored and correct.

Finish the job. See a task to its end. Enjoy the feeling of a worthwhile project completed.

We're going old school here to address an ongoing issue -- the Modesto City Schools' far-below-average athletic facilities. Progress has been made, but the project isn't close to being done.

Watching the Beyer and Downey High football teams slog through a mud pit last week at Johansen High affirmed the sorry status quo: Modesto still lags behind surrounding communities in caring for its young athletes.

"It's unfortunate a town of our size doesn't have better facilities," said Beyer coach Doug Severe, who's competed on local fields since he was a child. "It would be nice to have a premier facility."

Before we continue, officials for city schools must be commended for the installation of synthetic turf at Downey High's Chuck Hughes Stadium. The project, inspired by hideous dust-bowl conditions for the Davis-Modesto championship game in 2005, quickly gained momentum thanks to the grass-roots "Fields Of Green" fund-raising drive.

"Fields of Green," combined with student and community collections, raised more than $356,000. The school district added $500,000 along with more than $876,000 from state modernization funding. The result is a safe playing surface and no more dust at Downey.

Problem is, the job isn't done.

Three issues: 1. It took "Fields of Green" to prod the school district into action, 2. The initial project envisioned the turfing of Downey and Johansen, and 3. There is no money left to do what's required at Johansen.

Meanwhile, the situation worsens with each passing week, month and year. Six city schools must funnel their football games -- and other student sports and activities -- through the overworked venues at Downey and Johansen. The problem will be multiplied with the opening of Gregori High in the fall of 2010.

The short-term view also isn't pretty. Last week's rain, merged with football, did major damage to what's left of the turf at Johansen. And, by the way, there is still a month to go in the high school season, not counting the playoffs. Enochs and Downey will take their turns seeking traction tonight.

"A little bit bizarre," Severe admitted. "When Johansen dries out, it will be all dust in the middle of the field. And now, with all the schools in (Modesto Metro Conference) league play the last five weeks, it's a pretty chaotic situation."

The man charged with restoring order is Arturo Flores, the city schools' new superintendent. A football coach at Elk Grove High during the 1970s, he recalls the difficulty in purchasing routine equipment like press box phones for coaches. Big-ticket items like FieldTurf or, worse, stadium construction, present a minefield of problems.

Academics trumps athletics on the priority list, right? Classrooms must be addressed over fields, right?

"As a former coach, I understand the need. Everybody wants these things resolved yesterday," Flores said. "We have to have time to put a plan together."

Proposed solutions hold varying degrees of promise. Modesto Junior College Stadium, always an option, is cost-prohibitive. Staging high school football games at Thurman Field, another possibility, seems to be a major stretch. Just because it's done at Fresno's Chukchansi Park, the home of the Fresno Grizzlies, doesn't make it appealing here. I think city athletes deserve a better venue than a ballpark for football.

The school district probably will consider two ideas: turfing Johansen, and/or building a stadium at Gregori, a project that reportedly has dropped down on the to-do list.

"A stadium at Gregori is not going to answer the question for schools that are centrally located," Flores cautioned. "We are not going to throw something together. We're going to study these things."

Fine. Study them. And finish the job.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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