July 2, 2016

Mostly clear

We’ve outgrown stadium, Highland officials say

This architectural drawing, facing southwest, shows where the Highland School District wants to put its new stadium. The district plans to add a new access road south of the library, with parking on the south side of the new stadium. Parking on the north side will be available on the school’s main lot and a main entrance will be at the stadium’s north side. The district also plans to put in tennis courts. (COURTESY PHOTO)

The natural-grass field at Highland Stadium has been a source of pride for members of the Highland High School football team.

The players say they are proud to play on an old-fashioned, natural-grass field. But playing on natural grass has its drawbacks. To keep from tearing up the field so much that the school’s boys and girls soccer teams and other teams can’t use it, the football team practiced on a low-lying field near the middle school, about a half-mile north of the high school on Ridge Road in Granger Township.

“We practice in a pit that’s full of water,” said Ricky Esker, who played on the team from 2009-12.

But Esker said knowing how to play in the mud was an advantage: other teams used to artificial turf found themselves a bit out of their element.

“On a rainy night, the other teams don’t know how to play in those conditions,” he said. “They’ve only played on turf.”

That said, the field was a bit embarrassing, he added, noting that other districts have built new stadiums, and the quality of the Highland’s facilities looks especially weak in comparison.

“We need a new facility,” said Esker, now a freshman at Akron University majoring in mechanical engineering. “It’s shameful.

“We go to other stadiums and their away locker rooms are nicer than our home locker rooms,” Esker said.

The poor field conditions at Highland Stadium, built in 1959, was one reason the Highland Board of Education unveiled plans to construct a new facility on land the district owns just south of the high school. The plans include a new football stadium with artificial turf, an eight lane track, more seating and more parking.

The facility, with a cost estimated at $7 million to $8 million, will be paid for through a fundraising campaign and with the use of sales tax money set aside for capital expenditures.

The district’s plans to use only capital money got high marks from parents and taxpayers when board members unveiled the plans.

Mike Kudla, a former Highland athlete who played as a freshman on the Ohio State University’s 2003 National Championship football team, said it’s important for Highland athletes get a new facility. While at Highland, he led the team to its first playoff appearance in 2000.

“Highland’s always been very fiscally sound, and the administration has always done a wonderful job over the years to keep the standards high,” said Kudla, who now serves as the director of development for the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State. “Not only has Highland increased their academic standards, but they’re going to have a facility to mirror those positions.”

Kudla said he is nostalgic about Highland Stadium. He remembers the fans gathering on the hillside when the football team would come in to play.

“It’s a really unique place,” he said. “It was lumpy and muddy and it made us tough and galvanized.”

But he said the school needs a new facility to keep up with other districts and to accommodate the larger school population and teams. The district’s enrollment was about a third of what it was when Highland Stadium was built.

“We’ve really outgrown that facility,” he said. “The experience for the student is better.”

A new stadium also will benefit the soccer teams and track team. The school’s track now has only six lanes, but eight lanes are needed to host meets.

The district also would have the opportunity to rent the stadium to other community groups and youth sports teams on Saturdays and Sundays.

The proposed facility will include a set of tennis courts. Right now, the tennis team rents space at a country club for practices.

Football coach Tom Lombardo said the new stadium will be a win for the entire community.

He took the Hornets to the playoffs this year, and the team clinched a home game for the first round of playoffs, but the game was moved to nearby North Royalton to accommodate the crowd.

Lombardo praised the work of the district and the boosters’ support to keep the field up as best they could, but said a turf field would be easier to maintain and could be used more often.

“You just can’t upkeep a grass field, and I think that’s why a lot of districts are going to the turf,” he said. “Having a turf field allows you to hold more events.”

Between boys and girls soccer and three levels of football teams, it was impossible to get everyone the time they needed to practice on the field.

“We’ll have a lot less to worry about with the weather; it can rain all day and if it stops 20 minutes before practice, we can still go out on the turf,” Lombardo said. The current practice field known as “the pit” can sometimes flood so heavily that it can’t be used.

Lombardo said he strongly supports the new stadium and said he’s glad the district is using only capital funds to help make the vision a reality. He said the district deserves an athletic facility that matches the strong academic facilities on the campus.

“Now is the time,” he said. “We have the resources and it’s a wise decision.”

Later this month, the Highland High School athletic boosters plan to make a $225,000 donation to the project and get the fundraising started. The Highland Athletic Facilities Association, a nonprofit organization, has already been established to help the district secure corporate sponsorships and naming rights.

Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or at lgenson@medina-gazette.com.

Loren Genson About Loren Genson

Loren Genson was The Gazette's senior reporter. From August 2012 through September 2015, she covered Brunswick city and state and national government. To contact The Gazette, call the managing editor at (330) 721-4065.