Anchorage — The natural-grass field inside East High's track was so uneven and marked by the dirt equivalent of potholes last year that varsity football head coach Jeff Trotter, who owns a physical therapy practice, considered the surface dangerous.
"Let's put it this way: I sprained my own ACL on it,'' Trotter recalled recently.
Stepping back to avoid a player during a practice drill, Trotter stepped in a hole and injured his knee.
The field was so sketchy, Trotter said, that the Thunderbirds for the majority of the season often used only the end zones and the areas beyond the end zones for practice because those were the only grassy areas that were relatively flat. Even so, on days when it rained hard, the T-Birds practiced in the gym, where they could get more work done in a safer environment.
"Talk about a competitive disadvantage,'' Trotter said.
This year, the third-year coach harbors no such concerns.
The old grass inside the East track has been replaced by synthetic turf -- plush FieldTurf -- and that puts the T-Birds on equal footing with other Anchorage School District high schools.
West High also enjoys new FieldTurf -- two new fields of it actually. FieldTurf has been installed inside the West track, and an adjacent field just west of the track has also been covered with FieldTurf. West got two fields because it shares a campus with Romig Middle School. And FieldTurf is also being installed at Bartlett.
The five other high schools in the district -- Chugiak, Dimond, Eagle River, Service and South -- already had FieldTurf, so all eight Anchorage high schools will soon have artificial surfaces.
According to the school district, the FieldTurf at East cost $1.8 million. The fields at West-Romig cost $4.53 million, with some of that earmarked for a new track, lights, bleachers, a scoreboard and other amenities. Steve Nerland of the Alliance in Support of American Legion Baseball in Alaska, which has been a driving force behind gaining grant funding from the state legislature, said the installation for FieldTurf fields at Bartlett that will be used for football, soccer, baseball and softball cost $4.3 million. The football field at Bartlett is currently being installed and should be available for practice soon.
The field adjacent to the track at West previously was used for football practices, of a sort. West coach Tim Davis said he would not allow his players to practice at full speed on the old grass surface because it was so uneven players could easily suffer injuries on it.
"The side field was dangerous, dangerous,'' Davis said recently, standing at the edge of the new synthetic turf. "This changes everything. The big thing is to just have a stable surface. That's so important.''
The well-marked FieldTurf surfaces also aid players and coaches in practice. For instance, a coach can tell a player to line up on the numbers or the hashmarks, and the positioning is obvious. A wide receiver asked to make a break in his pattern 10 yards from the line of scrimmage can see precisely where to do so.
Nerland emphasized that the football fields in the district that have FieldTurf surfaces are used by a multitude of teams, not just varsity football teams. The fields, Nerland said, are also used by junior varsity and C teams for tackle football, by high school girls flag football teams at several levels, by soccer teams, and for physical education classes too.
"It's both an opportunity for more participation and for safer participation,'' Nerland said.
Currently, both Chugiak and Dimond sport enough amenities -- lights, scoreboard, stands, public address systems, etc. -- that football games are played at those stadiums both day and night. The goal is to eventually equip all eight high school football fields so they can be used for games.
"Look at Chugiak and Dimond -- they do draw bigger crowds because those fields are in their communities,'' Nerland said.
About half the varsity games in the Cook Inlet Conference this season -- 16 of 30 -- are scheduled to be played at Anchorage Football Stadium. Dimond will be the site of six games, all at night. Chugiak and Eagle River will be venues for four games each. The games at Eagle River will all be day games, and the games at Chugiak are split evenly between day and night.
Eagle River has previously played day games on its FieldTurf. Wolves coach Jason Brewer said $1.4 million from the legislature has been earmarked to upgrade lights, bleachers and a public address system, and make other field improvements, that will enable night games on campus.
Words to live by
At 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, and with an attacking style of running, Colony High fullback Fischer Summers usually moves the pile forward.
Summers' strength is not lost on teammate Daniel Bilafer, a 6-foot-4, 190-pound wide receiver and defensive back.
"I've been playing with him since fifth grade,'' Bilafer said. "In hitting drills, the secret is to get behind him, so you don't have to go up against him.''
D is for discipline
Season-opening games can be bring a flurry of penalty flags, but several teams debuted with minimal penalties last week.
Bartlett committed just one infraction -- and that personal foul call came deep into the fourth quarter -- in a 21-15 loss at Palmer. The Moose were flagged just four times for 20 yards.
Defending state champion South committed just three penalties for 20 yards in its 65-6 win over East.
And West did not commit a penalty in the first half, and had just four for the game in a 24-14 loss to Wasilla. The Warriors committed just four penalties too.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335. Reporter Jeremy Peters also contributed to this story.