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Football field project brings Franklin into 21st century

Other sports also benefit

“Home of the Sabers:” The finished gate at the Franklin High School football field awaits the refinished field’s completion. The first home game on the new artificial turf complex is slated for Aug. 29 against Greendale.

“Home of the Sabers:” The finished gate at the Franklin High School football field awaits the refinished field’s completion. The first home game on the new artificial turf complex is slated for Aug. 29 against Greendale. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Aug. 23, 2014

Franklin football coach Louis Brown stands in the school parking lot and sees his future in two phases as he takes in the beautiful mayhem, dust and chaos that marks the reconstruction of the athletics facilities.

This is all part and parcel of an idea that has become known in some Franklin circles as "Retiring the Swamp," referring to the not-so-kind nickname for the old often water-logged football field.

First, he gauges the here and now as he looks to the north and sees the coming into form of the marvelous new artificial turf football field with the striking black and gold-tinted end zones. It is slated to be ready for action when the Sabers host area rival and state power Greendale in the second game of the season Aug. 29.

Then he looks to the east, next to the school, and thinks about practice a year from now, as large mounds of dirt sit where part of a former woods once stood. They mark the area of a vast new practice field to come.

Brown's vision doesn't even take in the fact that his new field will also serve as the home for the boys and girls soccer teams, as well as the rapidly growing lacrosse unit, or the still forthcoming eight-lane track that will surround said field. That part of the project will get formally completed when the cell phone tower sitting on the southwest corner of it is removed, hopefully by March.

It also doesn't take into account the area north of Hughes Baseball Field, where a new on-site softball field is going up, or the pool area inside the building where a vastly improved facility is currently being used by the Sabers girls team when it started practice this week.

It's all good in his eyes and is part of a vast district and community project to help give the successful Sabers the facilities they deserve.

"I've been pushing for this for a long time," said Brown, "because for the longest time, our practice facilities were as bad as they come, especially for a D1 school. We just didn't have the land.

"My push (initially) was just for the practice fields, but now we have this. We've hosted about 18 (WIAA) state playoff games on this field over the last several years. Some of them had to be moved because we're sitting right next to a swamp. Now, in about a week, we'll be able to practice on the (new) field about two or three times a week, and it'll have the best drainage possible."

Master plan

All this is music to the ears of Athletics Director Sara Unertl, who like her predecessors, often walked around the smallish grounds of the high school and wondered "How do we make this all work?"

"It's been busy, it's been exciting," said Unertl. "All the coaches and the kids are really enthused. They want to go out there and run around on it (the new field) and we have to say, 'No, not yet.'"

"Not yet" became "soon" around the middle of August last year when a group of 16 area residents, including chairman Dave Bartels, formed the Saber Stadium Project and started fundraising. They spoke with Superintendent Steve Patz and high school principal Mike Nowak about a plan to vastly improve the facilities, starting with the football field.

They found receptive ears and started pushing things into high gear. By the time the school board approved $2.4 million to get the improvement project rolling last February, Bartels' group had raised over $880,000 in private funds. They are now up to around $950,000.

Contractors were hired and the project got moving in full earnest this spring, just a few months removed from the Saber football team's run to the WIAA State D1 championship game in November 2013, where it came up short to powerful Arrowhead .

The plan went into high gear when the students left the campus in early June.

"It has more than exceeded my expectations and that of the committee," said Bartels. "I go there every day and I just say 'Wow, this is so cool!' It just gets hard to describe at times. I like to think they that got it right."

When the field is unveiled for that Aug. 29 football game, it will feature four sets of permanent lines, one each for the football and soccer fields and one each for the boys and girls lacrosse teams.

Fans will be still be sitting in the old bleachers (a project for another day) and part of the view on the southwest corner may be partially obscured by that cell phone tower. Because of the new footprint of the field (caused by the expanded track), fans will be sitting just slightly askew of the playing surface.

"Some people may need to crane their necks a little," said Unertl.

There will also be a new message board. The end zone will be primarily black with gold "Franklin" lettering, and the sidelines will be gold.

In short, it will be glorious, officials say.

More to come

The new practice fields still to come, were part of a complicated arrangement with state officials, said Unertl. She said while "a lot of trees" came down, only a small amount of wetland was taken up in the process.

The practice fields are a product of the success of the football program, said Brown. Championship-level teams have been getting by for years on just a small practice space near the northeast entrance, and it simply wasn't enough to accommodate the growth.

Furthermore, when the new pool project was completed this past year, turning the old meters-length pool into a regulation yards-distance pool, Brown said there was an "18-foot dent" put into the existing practice space.

So, for the early season, the Hughes baseball field was used as a practice site for the team. As noted, it's a messy, complicated process that will look to yield something beautiful very soon.

"We'd just like to celebrate the support of the community," said Brown. "Next year we will have our practice fields. This is good for all the other people (and teams) looking for space. Soccer has always been off-site, so its good to bring it back here.

"It's all looking pretty good. The kids have always been patient even when the space was never very good. They've just been waiting for an opportunity."

There are bills yet to be paid, Bartels added, so the committee will continue to fundraise for the foreseeable future. "We have a goal of reaching a million dollars and we're getting close," he said.

Unertl sees the big picture. She is grateful that the district kicked in the money to fund both the softball and pool projects on its own.

The softball field may not be ready for at least another year, but the outline looks terrific. She is already ecstatic for the swimmers (she is a former state champion sprinter at Homestead), as they now also have new lighting and state-of-the-art starting blocks.

Her next plan, still in its infancy, is to bring tennis courts back to the school instead of their current home at Tuckaway and Village Club. She's not greedy, she says, but she does want the best possible for the kids.

"This is a great community, a great people," she said "They have stepped up and made things happen."

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