Turf or grass?

Coaches and athletes weigh in.

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Football player Lucas Debettencourt (center, No. 78) has been injured multiple times playing on the football field. He wants to see artificial turf installed to cut down on injuries. —Stacey Rupolo

Over the past few years, the expression “turf wars” has taken on a whole new meaning for many Island residents. Instead of prompting images of urban neighborhoods or sprawling cattle ranches, “turf wars” on Martha’s Vineyard now triggers visions of our own boys and girls in uniform and at play at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

As a community we’ve been justifiably immersed in deep debate, cost analyses, schematics, drainage ratios, in-depth studies, and scientific evaluations, all regarding the very important question of what playing surface best serves the objectives of our athletic programs and coaches, as well as the safety and dreams of our children.

The Times approached a number of coaches and student athletes, the people most affected by the ultimate decision, to ask their views on this complex topic. Note: This is not a “both sides of the issue” treatment, for one simple reason — anti-turf sentiment was nowhere to be found among our random-sample group.

What did emerge, however, is a glimpse at the practical, real-life factors that lie behind the strong pro-turf feelings. The attraction of turf has nothing to do with being modern, keeping up with the Joneses, or cool-looking fields like on TV … it’s personal.

Safety concerns

For those close to the action, the hazards of existing playing conditions at MVRHS cannot be overstated.

“What our team plays on is no more than a pig pasture,” Lisa Knight, girls field hockey coach, told us. “Basically, the grass on our field is an atrocity. It’s a liability. It has holes. Sprinkler heads just stick up. There is no grass. It’s dirt. If you fall on our [grass] field right now, you’re going to go to the ER to get stitches because of what you are falling on: sprinkler heads, pieces of glass.”

Lucas DeBettencourt, senior football player, agreed: “The amount of times that I have sprained my ankles in the divots in the grass is uncountable. If we had a turf field, the amount of injuries would be cut down substantially.”

“Grass is great, but only when it provides a predictable surface,” Rocco Bellebuono, girls soccer coach, told us. “Predictable grass surfaces are very hard to come by. It has been proven, is being proved, and will continue to be the case that turf surfaces are no more dangerous to our youth than the houses that they live in, the cars that they ride in, or the clothes on their backs, all of which have synthetic properties to them.”

Don Herman, the girls softball coach and former football coach, said he worries a lot, with the current fields, about knee and ankle injuries from stepping in holes. There have been numerous times over the years, before games, he said, that he “would line up our football team and we would walk like a rescue-type walk, filling holes and picking up rocks as we go. You’d be surprised at the size of some of the divots and holes that we filled in before those games. It’s just a trap and a broken leg or an injury waiting to happen.”

“The playing conditions of the fields at the high school as they stand are deplorable,” Anne Lemenager, former coach and P.E. teacher, said. “They’re unsafe for our kids to play on. It’s just not fair for them to be playing in clumps of mud.”

Track coach Joe Schroeder said, “None of our outdoor teams can claim a home-field advantage, given the condition of our fields. You need safe, uniform playing conditions to have a home-field advantage. We don’t have that.”

Maintenance and use

According to coaches, too few fields means the ones being used are overused. Overuse on grass leads to deterioration. The maintenance of grass fields, particularly in our climate, is expensive, unpredictable, and never-ending.

“You have to have a flat, level, even surface when you play playoff games,” Coach Don Herman said. “The reason that all playoff games have to be played on turf fields is because of the conditions of the field. It’s a level field. It’s a faster field.”

“AFT [artificial] surfaces make the most sense,” Rocco Bellebuono said, “simply because their use-to-cost ratio is much more than for a grass surface. You can use an AFT surface constantly, while a grass surface must be given time to recover and regenerate. Any high school in the country faces the same issues that we are facing now, and that is why we see AFT as the predominant playing surface when we travel off-Island.”

Lisa Knight added, “Other teams are starting to refuse to play us because they refuse to play on grass. Field hockey is not a grass sport anymore, it’s a turf sport. The roll of the ball on turf is true. When we play on turf, our players love it. They can stop the ball. When we play on our grass, the ball bounces everywhere.”

About the appeal of the current fields to visiting teams, Joe Schroeder said, “MVRHS can never host a jamboree or a multischool tourney or meet. Teams would not come. It’s the opposite with our cross-country program, because we have a great course. Cross-country teams like to come here to run.”

Boys soccer coach Esteban Aranzabe described playing on grass as “impossible.” “All the traffic these fields have — the main high school field has five teams; that’s more than 50 home games plus practice. I’m not just thinking about the high school teams, I’m looking at the entire community. The Island soccer community is bouncing from one place to another because we don’t have a space where these teams can practice.”

Rocco Bellebuono added, “Grass surfaces require extensive watering and fertilization. They have limited use capacity due to their delicate nature, and require professional care.”

“On turf, the lines are permanent,” Lisa Knight said. “You don’t have to reline the field every day. Also, with turf you can practice in the rain, because you don’t worry about mud. You don’t have to cancel games.”

“Grass grows best when?” Don Herman asked rhetorically. “In the fall. It doesn’t grow here in the winter. You can’t grow it in the spring, because you have lacrosse out there. What’s the worst time to grow grass? The summer. The eight weeks when the fields are not used. It’s a constant uphill battle.”