April 14, 2018 10:01:48 PM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
Sharon Parnell has been involved in local soccer for 17 years as both a coach and administrator.
"Some years, it's a challenge," said Parnell, the administrator for the city's club soccer program, Columbus United. "This has been one of those years."
Indeed, the combination of weather and foot traffic have taken a toll on soccer facilities in the city. At the Lowndes County Soccer Complex, the county parks department is struggling to get a healthy stand of grass, an effort complicated by two tournaments that bookend the month of April.
While the soccer complex is struggling to grow grass, the city's parks department has its hands full just keeping the grass cut at facilities it maintains.
A wet, cool spring that frustrated efforts to maintain the fields, but that frustration also is felt by soccer teams who say they've had to resort to practicing in yard, the indoor arena at the Fairgrounds and just about any place with enough grass to hold practice.
"Normally, we will practice two or three times a week before a tournament," said Kalie Poole, whose daughter, 8-year-old Aubrey, plays for the Columbus United U-10 team. "But it's been almost impossible this year to get on the fields at the soccer complex or Joe Cook. There were probably five or six weeks since January that we couldn't get on the fields either place. Parents pay a lot of money in fees for their kids to play. I understand the fields have to be kept in shape, but one of those (two facilities) should be available when they're keeping people off the other."
Access vs. aesthetics
Both Roger Short of the Lowndes County Parks and Greg Lewis of the Columbus Parks Department say there's a natural conflict between keeping the publicly owned fields available for citizens to use and managing the traffic to allow the fields to recover and grow.
"It's not like football or baseball," Short said. "They play soccer almost year-round and the damage soccer does to a field is pretty bad."
At the end of March, the soccer complex hosted a tournament on a wet weekend.
"Now, we're trying to get over that," Short said. "The damage done over a day or two in those kinds of conditions can take two or three months to recover from."
And with the Admiral's Cup -- the second largest tournament in the state bringing in 100 teams and roughly 1,500 players -- on the weekend of April 26-28, Short is hoping for hot, dry weather.
"There's not much we can do," Short said. "We've done a little light fertilizing and a little mowing, but really what we need is for some hot weather that Bermuda grass needs to grow. With the spring we've had, the grass is just coming out of dormancy. It can't take the heavy (foot) traffic, so we're trying to keep people off the fields as much as possible."
Nancy Carpenter, executive director for the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she visits the fields almost daily as the Admiral's Cup approaches. The condition of the fields is important in efforts to keep major tournaments -- and visitors -- returning to Columbus.
"It's very important," Carpenter said. "This is the second time we've hosted the Admiral's Cup. We also had the Governor's Cup, the largest tournament in the state. The reason we are able to bring them back is because they've been impressed with the condition of the facilities and the hospitality. When officials decide on future sites, the remember those things."
While the county is trying to limit the use of the Soccer Complex, the availability of the fields at Joe Cook has been limited, too.
Columbus Municipal School District owns those fields, and the city parks department helps maintain them.
Craig Shannon, CMSD interim superintendent, said the fields at Cook are accessible to the public.
"You don't have to reserve the fields," Shannon said. "If the gates are open, they are available. We want people to enjoy the fields and use them."
More often that not this spring, the gates have been closed, though.
"Cook is an older facility and it has a lot of low places," Parnell said. "With all the rain we've had, they just haven't been dry enough to allow a lot of use. Youth soccer can wear out a field and the fields need time to recover, especially with the kind of weather we've had this year. It's been like this a hand full of years. There's not much you can do."
Lewis said he is sympathetic to the teams' desire to have both facilities available for practice.
"From our point of view, they are open fields and we should let people use them as much as possible," Lewis said. "But there are times we have to keep people of the fields. Nobody wants to do that, but sometimes we don't have a choice. We have to preserve the fields. If we don't, people will complain just as much about that."
Parnell said she, better than probably anyone, understands the frustration of parents and coaches in he league, which features 168 kids on 14 teams.
"I think of a lot of the parents are still kind of new to soccer," she said. "Maybe they don't quite understand that this sort of thing will happen and there's not much you can do about it. But I will same I'm proud of my parents, they've been resourceful in finding ways to get practices in, some how or some way. The conditions are not what anyone wants. It's just what we have. It won't always be like this year."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]