Feature Article - October 2017
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From The Ground Up

How Grounds Maintenance Professionals Keep Moving Forward

By Dave Ramont

In Ames, Iowa, it's the day before a big Iowa State home football game against a conference rival. Players are likely running plays in their heads and readying for their pre-game rituals. Fans might be planning tailgate parties or laying out their Cyclones apparel. And Tim Van Loo is walking around Jack Trice Stadium thinking about soil moisture. "Friday night before a Saturday game I'll try to shoot for a certain moisture percentage, so I'll either irrigate that night or not irrigate, depending on where my soil moisture is."

Van Loo is director of facilities and grounds at Iowa State University, and he's also the current president of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA). He's discussing the benefits of new technologies as they apply to turf management. "Moisture sensors are huge; we bought ours in 2012 and it completely changed how we irrigate." He added that up until then, they were using ET (evapotranspiration) as an indicator. But now, using TDR (time-domain reflectometry), they know exactly what every field's wilting point and saturation point is as they strive to find that perfect balance.

Van Loo is one soldier in an army of grounds workers across the United States who are dedicated to providing a safe surface for athletes to play and practice on, whether it's at a professional soccer stadium or a Little League baseball field. Their foes can include limited resources and budgets, use and abuse of their facilities, and, the most formidable and unpredictable of all—Mother Nature.

The STMA was formed in 1981 and currently boasts more than 2,600 members. Their mission is to "advance professionalism in sports field management and safety through education, awareness programs and industry development." They offer continuing education, scholarships, grant programs and various awards. "Our membership consists of any level of athletic field manager, so K-12 schools, parks and recreation, colleges and universities, professional level—anybody that has their hand on any kind of athletic field could be a member," Van Loo said. "We have members that operate polo grounds, grass tennis courts, even horse racing venues that operate on grass."

The STMA's annual Conference and Exhibition will be held in January 2018 in Fort Worth, Texas, and Van Loo said it's a hallmark of the association. "Our education is as top-notch as we can make it. We have a lot of practitioners and academics that speak, and really it's all about creating the safest playing surfaces we possibly can for the athletes."

He added that networking is really big, and he believes that the STMA has no egos. "There aren't any secrets; if you have a question for an NFL guy, and you're a K-12 guy, that NFL guy has no problem telling you exactly what he does and why he does it."

Indeed, networking can be very helpful, especially since grounds and turf managers tend to wear so many different hats. Joe Kovolyan, manager of grounds at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., described some of their duties: "My staff and I maintain all trees, shrubs, grounds, athletic fields, irrigation, landscape installs and designs, solid waste, motor pool and snow and rain storm response." His crew numbers 12, plus six to eight student workers who help throughout the year. Some of the employees have specialized areas, such as an athletic field supervisor, an irrigation tech and a grounds supervisor.

Kovolyan is also supervisor of solid waste and automotive manager, plus he's a Certified Arborist. He said he purposely did a lot of different things in the green industry starting in college to see what he liked most, and that broad knowledge has helped him move up in the positions he's held. And he joked about how he gets bored quickly, so this allows him to always be doing something different. "In one week we can be doing a large crane-assisted tree removal, aerate and top-dress a field, spec out a new utility vehicle and be planting our winter annuals."

The University of Puget Sound has a variety of outdoor sports facilities, including baseball and softball fields. But Baker Stadium is the Loggers signature facility, hosting multiple sports, which can present some challenges. "We host men's and women's soccer, cross country and football in the fall; and women's lacrosse, and track and field in the spring. We also hold our commencement on the field along with numerous other events and camps," Kovolyan said. "Our biggest challenge is getting the field back together after football season for spring sports, and then a very short window between spring sports ending and repairing lacrosse goal areas for hosting commencement."

As far as grass, Peyton Field inside Baker Stadium utilizes a ryegrass annual bluegrass mix. "We manage it the best way we can with cultural practices and over-seeding. We do adjust heights for the various sports, depending on the schedule," Kovolyan said.

East Athletic Field, a 90/10 sand-based field, is also used by Logger soccer and lacrosse teams for games and practice. But it had a bad irrigation design, heavy thatch issue and was just plain "beat down." So the existing material was stripped off and it was resurfaced, with adjustments made to the pitch and the root zone mix. A blue/rye un-netted sod mix was brought in from Eastern Washington. "On this side of the mountains they don't tend to use much bluegrass due to the cooler, wetter temps, and they net everything for quicker harvest," Kovolyan said. "It definitely added to the cost, but the field has both played and drained well, including numerous games played during heavy rain events."

As with many schools, Puget Sound also has an artificial turf field used for practices. Kovolyan explained that it's also great for club sports, and its heavy use helps him keep natural grass in the stadium and East Athletic Field. "Due to our extremely rainy seven months, it gives a place for all the different teams to practice regardless of the weather."