PHS coach Levi Webber and players work on home plate during a home game this past spring against North Marion. The game had to be suspended in the fourth inning and finished on the opponent’s field the next day. (File photo by Andy Cripe/Philomath News)

In August 2019, coaches Levi Webber and Erik Remington met with Principal Mike Bussard at Philomath High School’s baseball field for an initial conversation about the possibility of installing artificial turf.

“We got the guidance to get everything together and see what we want to do,” said Webber, longtime PHS baseball coach. “So we started getting the ball rolling there.”

It’s been four years — a longer-than-anticipated timeline — and the project is just getting on wheels. Travis King is now the softball coach, Bussard is no longer the principal and a worldwide pandemic put everything on hold. In fact, the project’s organizers were scheduled to meet with the Philomath School Board in March 2020 just days before the wave of COVID shutdowns started.

A setback for sure but Webber never let the idea fade.

“We lost a lot of momentum there but we figured if we’re serious about it, we probably should get the ball rolling again,” Webber said last week. “We got the troops back together and started hashing it out.”

The final proposal involves artificial turf installations on both fields along with various other needs that have been identified. The estimated cost has gone up over the past four years with the latest number coming in at around $600,000 — a figure that does not take in-kind donations into account.

Webber has seen a positive response in recent weeks since the effort to secure donations got underway.

“We really started making our big fundraising push at the beginning of this summer,” Webber said. “We’re all pretty excited and encouraged for where we’re at right now. It’s been a good summer so far.”

Philomath High’s softball team plays in the rain during an April home game. (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Webber said that he and King have been joined by a handful of community members who are helping spread the word to drum up support, mentioning Jay Faxon, Denny Bennett, Dennis Gibson, Kevin Berklund and Shelley Niemann.

“We started getting that ball rolling here and right now as we sit (last week), we’ve got $92,725 in cash and another about $30,000 in kind that we know of,” Webber said, that latter number likely to increase significantly as the project gets closer. “It’s a good start — shoot to be close to $100,000 and only been going at it for a little over a month is pretty good. So we’re going to continue to do that throughout the summer.”

Webber said that by this fall, the group will take a look at grant opportunities. Entities that provide grants consider the financial standing of an organization as part of its process to ensure that its contributions go toward feasible projects.

For those who want to make tax-deductible donations to the PHS baseball and softball turf project, click here for information on various contribution levels. Or, to go directly to the donation page, click here.

“We wanted to kind of do it all in one shot so we weren’t going back in a couple of years saying, ‘man, I wish you would have done this or maybe we should have looked at doing that,’” Webber said. “Hopefully, this continues to gain that steam and we get to where we need to be so we can get it rolling next spring.”

Webber said the work would hopefully begin in June 2024 following the spring baseball and softball seasons.

What the two programs went through this past spring serves as an example of the need. The teams spent a lot of time in the school’s gyms doing workouts because of the wet weather.

“If you have turf and it’s raining, at least you can go outside and you can hit ground balls, you can do team defense and you can do stuff on the baseball field, even if it’s just the infield,” Webber said. “I think that killed us this year, not being able to get out and get reps.”

The benefits of a turf field would be felt at all levels of player development.

This image illustrates projected changes to the Stephenson Field. (Image provided by Levi Webber)

“If it’s turf, shoot, the seventh- and eighth-grade kids can come out there and play more of their games, practice more,” Webber said. “It’ll just give more opportunities to kids at all levels.”

The artificial turf would be installed from the back of the infields to the back of the backstops, including foul territory. Other baseball field upgrades include reworking the bullpens while creating a spectator berm for fans, solving an outfield drainage issue and upgrading fencing and gates. Softball improvements include the addition of bullpens, building a new visitor team’s dugout and a storage shed, installing a new scoreboard and adding drainage to the junior varsity field.

The baseball field’s relocation of the bullpens will create new game-viewing opportunities.

“We’re going to move our bullpens from the end of each dugout out into the existing foul territory down both lines with the idea that we’re going to take whatever dirt we have leftover from the excavation of the infields and build some little berms for people to sit on for viewing,” Webber said.

During the recent Senior American tournament, Webber said fans set up pop-up tents on the visitor side’s bullpen area because it’s such a good vantage point for viewing.

“By moving the bullpens down the line, you allow spectators to have those areas and give them some better sight lines to watch the game,” he said.

As for the outfield drainage issue, that has created in-season playability issues.

“In the outfield, we’re going to put new drain lines in,” Webber said. “We did have some existing drain lines but somehow the drainage got screwed up when they put that bike path in, so our field doesn’t drain anymore and becomes a marsh in the spring.”

The softball field would get a new visitor’s dugout and scoreboard and add bullpens. (Image provided by Levi Webber)

The softball field’s portion of the project includes the creation of bullpens. Currently, pitchers trying to get warmed up to go into the game — especially on the home dugout side — are often throwing among the fans.

“We’re also going to redo the visitor dugout because it’s pretty small and it’s pretty low … along with a storage area so they can store more of their stuff over there — their 4-wheeler and just some of the odds and ends that they need,” Webber said.

King said installing turf will cut down drastically on field prep work — which is mostly handled by the head coaches.

“The other thing about turf that’s going to be beautiful is just the maintenance side of it,” King said. “We’re not having to go out there with the chalker and chalk our fields and drag and all that stuff.”

King said that a component of the project also includes wiring work to be able to more easily install lights on the softball field in the future.

“We obviously have a very tight-knit community that is really helping out,” King said. “I’ve talked to a lot of different people that are really wanting to help in some way or in some fashion — monetarily or an in-kind donation — to help with the building process. We’re all excited about that.”

Webber and then-AD Tony Matta approached the Philomath School Board about the project this past February to move it forward to reality. The board, which included two members no longer at the table, supported the idea as a whole.

During the meeting, Webber did ask if the School Board would increase its annual field maintenance commitment from $15,000 to $20,000 so that a portion of those funds could be set aside and accumulated to pay for a chunk of future turf replacement.

“The shelf life is anywhere from 10 to 15 years — it’s really dependent on how heavy it gets used. The main areas, they’ll last quite a while,” Webber said. “Newport, they did their turf — I think in 2012 was the first year — and it’s still pretty great for the most part. There’s some areas around the bases and also like the pitching mound and the batter’s box you’ll have to maintain and repair as time goes on … just general wear and tear.”

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.