The stadium at Chaparral High

(Eric Newman/Progress Staff)

The stadium at Chaparral High was among the first in the Scottsdale Unified School District to get a new artificial playing surface manufactured by FieldTurf. The fields and running tracks at all five football stadiums in the district have received or soon will receive new artificial surfaces.

You might think the only vegetation thriving in Arizona is cactus.

However, in the Scottsdale Unified School District, another type is thriving: artificial turf in high school stadiums.

Voters in the school district in 2016 approved a $229 million bond package that, among other things, covered renovation of high school stadium playing surfaces and running tracks.

SUSD, citing savings in maintenance, upkeep, labor and water, concluded that the best action at all five district high school football fields was to replace each with a new artificial-turf field.

“Last year, Saguaro, Chaparral and Coronado all got their fields, since out of the five high schools they needed the most attention,” said Cher Fesenmaier, athletic director and assistant principal at Arcadia High.

Field renovation at Arcadia High followed this year. Desert Mountain will be next.

Arcadia and Chaparral previously had artificial turf that was installed 10 years ago. The rest had grass fields, which over time had fallen into bad shape. 

“Some of our fields, to be quite honest, were beat up and needed to be replaced,” said Nathan Slater, athletic director for the Scottsdale district. “The Coronado field was in bad shape. So was the Saguaro field. It was hard to grow grass on some of the fields that were beat up and used a lot over time.”

The price tag for replacing the first four fields and running tracks was $9.5 million, according to Jeffrey Gadd, interim chief financial officer of the Scottsdale Unified School District.

Advancement in technology makes today’s artificial turf a far cry from the old, unforgiving, parking-lot hard artificial surfaces that once caused abrasions and infections to players and were bone rattling to joints in the body.

State-of-the-art fields, such as those manufactured by FieldTurf, which the Scottsdale district purchased, are far more forgiving. National Football League players for the past two decades have said that they prefer playing on FieldTurf surfaces.

There are other benefits.

“It’s a lot easier than mowing it twice a week, painting it three times, every two weeks. It’s also a manpower savings, too,” Slater said.

Environmentally, there are advantages over natural-grass fields, as well, according to Iannick Di Sanza, marketing coordinator for the manufacturer, FieldTurf. But the school district said the defining factor is safety.

Arcadia, which had an aging artificial-turf field, replaced it this past summer.

“We have an E-layer, which is an additional protection layer underneath the turf that helps decrease the rate of injuries,” Fesenmaier said. “What’s interesting is that before the fill came into the field itself, the E-layer actually felt better than what the old turf felt like. That’s how significant (the improvement) was.”

The padding isn’t the only new technology.

Fesenmaier said Coolplay beads in a way that, when hit with water, it instantly cools the temperature of the field. In order to activate these beads, the schools have or will install water cannons to shoot streams over the fields shortly before use. It requires far less water usage than irrigating natural turf.

Slater said artificial surfaces last about 10 years and that the savings over a decade makes them “about break-even” compared to the cost of maintaining natural grass.

Soccer teams are accustomed to playing on hard, dormant-Bermuda fields in the winter, according to Slater.

“That is not ideal,” Slater said. “Now they get to play on a nice field, too. It is more aesthetically appealing. I think it creates equity among our schools.”

New artificial-surface tracks, part of the project, also are being installed.

“The tracks are overlooked, too,” Slater said. “Our tracks were in desperate need of refurbishing…. While the football field is what catches everybody’s eyes, the tracks were beat up, and at Saguaro it was really bad.”