Though the soccer field at Highlands School was heralded as a huge step forward for school soccer, it’s been plagued with environmental problems since its inaugural season the spring of 2009.
Now, 13 years later, school officials, parents, and community members are asking the school board and the county to help remedy the situation.
At recent School Board meeting held in Highlands, architect, parent and recently retired soccer coach Jeff Weller, who has been involved with the soccer field since its inception, asked the board to replace the current soccer field with a turf field.
The price tag is $840,000 not including in-kind work from area companies. The funds would have to be OK’d by the school system and provided by the county.
The first step was asking the school board to move the issue forward.
The placement of the field on school property was meant to fix the problem of the school not having a regulation-size soccer field. But underlying environmental issues have plagued the field and caused an uproar from parents and students because games are postponed or canceled when the field is water-logged, which is often.
“We get 100-125 inches of rain per year in Highlands,” said Weller at Monday’s School Board meeting. “So far this season [one month] we’ve had 9 ½ inches of rain which means the field can’t be played on.”
Prior to the field’s construction, soccer practices were held on a small open area at the school and all “home” games were played at Macon Middle School in Franklin. The first boys soccer team at Highlands School came in the mid-1990s. The first varsity girls season started in the early 2000s.
Now, Highlands School has boys and girls teams for varsity High School as well as Middle School. The construction of the Buck Creek fields for soccer and softball on the only flat area big enough on the plateau was a county feat in itself and was greatly needed.
However, the soccer field wasn’t regulation size and so school teams had to get a waiver from the state to use it and that is still the case today. Eventually, the county and community came together to build a field on Highlands School property.
The choices were the track or the area behind the school. Both sites had issues. The track spot wasn’t long enough for a regulation field. State regulations require a minimum length of 100 yards by 50 yards wide.
The area behind the school was a pond long ago which meant water problems, but it could fit a field 108 yards long by 55 yards wide. To deal with the inherent water problem, a “herringbone” drainage system was constructed under the entire field. In addition, the field was sloped for surface drainage.
Throughout the years, maintaining the soccer field – grass treatment, fertilizer, mowing, aeration, overseeding – has all been accomplished through private donations and significant volunteer hours.
“As far as we are aware, in the past 13-14 years, there have not been any requests for county participation since the field was completed,” said Jeff Weller.
When the field isn’t playable
High School and Middle School Boys soccer is played in the Fall but due to the rainfall Highlands gets and the characteristics of the field, 5-10 home games have to be postponed, delayed or cancelled.
“Some of these dates are postponed more than once. It is also very common to lose matches of non-conference games due to postponement with no ability to reschedule opponent schedules,” said Weller.
Due to the weather in Highlands, the boys’ season typically ends around the end of October. The girls’ season starts the middle to end of February, which means the field can’t recover effectively between seasons due to the temperatures.
“We can’t repair damage and overseed during that time to “reinforce” the playing area for the High School Girls and Middle School Girls teams. So, the girls generally start the season on a damaged field and play their season prior to any repairs being made. Sometimes the field can’t be used because the ground is frozen,” said Weller. “We typically get 2-3 games into the season before outdoor practices are even possible.”
When scheduling the Spring soccer seasons, the schedule is usually front-loaded with 6-8 away games because of frozen ground conditions. When the field finally does start to melt, any rain causes bigger issues because the frozen ground below the first few inches keeps the field from draining properly.
“All schools have weather-related schedule changes, however, the impact of weather in Highlands’ case, with the exception of severe weather, is limited to the time that the weather is taking place,” said Weller. “What we are referencing in the postponements and cancellations related to the playability and safety of the field the next day or several days after the rain event.”
Weller submitted a proposal for budgetary purposes from a Turf company that does significant work and installs for major college and professional teams across the country.
“They have done work around this area, too, so we contacted them due to their familiarity with the area and its challenges,” Weller said.
The work would include excavating the existing field to a depth of about six inches; haul the spoils away; layout new perimeter corners; laser level sub grade to tie into surrounding elevations; install concrete curb for the perimeter of the field; install a new drainage system to connect into the existing storm drains surrounding the field; install a geo fab liner; install a 4-inch base of stone and two inches of 89 stone laser leveled and compacted in individual lifts; do a final laser level the field; final compact of the field; purchase, deliver and install new Shaw Products Legion NXT 2.0 Synthetic turf and all infill including sand and rubber mix; groom the field; apply center logo and all lines for soccer; and provide a grooming machine.
BOE Chairman Jim Breedlove said he understood the problem, but said the school district has other pressing needs.
“For instance, at Nantahala School, we have a failing septic system that needs to be addressed because if that fails, we have to shut school down,” said Breedlove. “I am going to ask Hilary Wilkes to take this matter to the facilities committee and to meet with the MC Board of Commissioners.”
Wilkes is charged with explaining the issues at Nantahala and the Highlands School soccer field and to get some consensus as far as the county’s commitment.
“Based on your report, we will consider taking action at some point in time,” said Breedlove.
Wilkes is the liaison between the school system’s facilities committee and the MC Board of Commissioners.
By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper