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A sports wonderland to envy

NIAGARA FALLS – Niagara Falls High School was forced to forfeit its home-field advantage last month. Following heavy rain on a Saturday morning, referees deemed the field at Sal Maglie Stadium too wet for the Wolverines to play their football home opener, and the game was moved to Lancaster later that evening.

A year from now, Niagara Falls’ home-field advantage could be the envy of practically all high schools in the country.

District officials expect construction to be completed next spring on a $22 million athletic complex that will include nine synthetic turf fields, covering 711,000 square feet.

Jim Dobmeier, president of Cheektowaga-based A-Turf, the company installing the synthetic fields, said this is the largest high school installation he has seen since founding A-Turf in 2002.

“I’m fairly confident this is the largest high school installation in the U.S.,” Dobmeier said. “Most high schools are one field, maybe two. Beyond two is very rare. Nine is unheard of.”

The state Education Department has told the Niagara Falls School District that this will be the largest high school athletic complex in the state, Deputy Superintendent Mark R. Laurrie said.

A-Turf installed the current fields at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Niagara University, Canisius College, SUNY Buffalo State, the University at Buffalo’s Kunz Stadium, and more than 20 local high schools.

St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute currently has the largest synthetic turf complex in Western New York at 183,961 square feet, the equivalent of 2½ fields, Dobmeier said.

A six-field baseball and softball complex in Flemington, N.J., spanning 545,000 square feet was A-Turf’s largest installation prior to breaking ground on the Falls project.

Laurrie said the new fields provide “a world-class athletic venue that gives our student-athletes the equity they deserve, the safe environment we expect and the opportunity to feel like professional athletes.”

Construction is nearly complete on the 80,000-square-foot stadium exhibition field that will be used for football, soccer, lacrosse and track. The stadium also will have bleacher seating for 1,700 and a press box.

A 13,000-square-foot field house with three indoor practice fields, six tennis courts and a wrestling area will begin to go up next month and will be operational by April 1, Laurrie said.

Construction also has begun on varsity and junior varsity baseball fields covering 216,900 square feet. If the weather cooperates, the baseball fields may be ready for the high school season, Laurrie said.

In the spring, A-Turf will install synthetic turf at the 75,000-square-foot Nicolletti football field and the adjacent softball diamonds covering 82,210 square feet, as well as a 256,000-square-foot field marked for soccer and lacrosse. The project, approved by 86 percent of Falls voters as part of a $66.7 million package of state-funded school improvements, is getting $11.1 million from the New York Power Authority through the Niagara River Greenway Plan. The Greenway funds are for the synthetic turf fields, Laurrie said.

“We’ve always known we’ve needed to do something back there,” Laurrie said. “For having one of the most beautiful high schools around, the field conditions were always substandard.”

Laurrie has noticed players and parents from visiting schools peeking over at the construction site during games on the existing grass soccer fields.

“It fills me with pride to be able to have our parents say we are building a new football stadium, a new soccer stadium, a new lacrosse stadium, a new track, a new baseball field, a new field house back there,” Laurrie said.

“And to say that it got done in Niagara Falls where sometimes people think something like that couldn’t or shouldn’t happen for kids is a real boost for the equity in this community.”

The new fields will allow the city school district to get out of its lease with city-owned Sal Maglie Stadium, saving the district $150,000 in annual maintenance costs and keeping students on school grounds for home games and practices.

Synthetic turf also has superior drainage capabilities, making unplayable fields part of Niagara Falls’ past. The same storm that soaked Sal Maglie Stadium before Niagara Falls’ football opener produced not a single puddle on the new turf fields, Laurrie said.

Despite having one of the largest enrollments in the state, Niagara Falls teams have struggled on the football, soccer and lacrosse fields in recent seasons. Laurrie hopes the new playing surfaces encourage more students to join the teams and, more importantly, keep their grades up to remain eligible.

Dobmeier predicts success for the Wolverines.

“Most of the high schools that have synthetic fields typically have good sports,” Dobmeier said. “One feeds the other. There’s strong interest in the first place; thus, they find the money. Once you find the money, it boosts the whole morale of the community and the commitment to sports continues into winning.”

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