Athens Stadium's new artificial turf has only been complete for about a week, but it's already paying dividends for the Athens High School football program.
After a long installation process, the Golden Eagles were able to practice on it this week.
In fact, Athens coach Cody Gross said the only reason the Golden Eagles were able to practice outdoors Tuesday was because of the turf. Midafternoon thunderstorm turned the grass practice field into a muddy mess.
“It's been nice being able to practice (on the turf) this week, especially with the rain,” Gross said. “We would've been in a mud hole (on the practice field). Monday would've been rough, and (Tuesday) would have been a day where we probably would've had to go in the gym. While the (artificial) field is still wet, the footing is good. It's been really good for us.”
While Gross said he didn't push for an artificial turf field, one was desperately needed due to drainage issues with the old grass field.
“I'm thankful for it,” Gross said of the new field. “We'd had drainage issues for years. Last year, there were several games where it hadn't rained in a week and the field was still soaking wet. The East Limestone game was one. The footing was terrible in that game.”
Gross said Athens Middle School will also benefit from the new turf, as that team will be able to practice on the old high school practice field while the high school practices on the stadium field.
With Athens High School having opened at a new location and Athens Middle moving into the old high school building, the football stadium now sits on the middle school campus.
This meant the high school and middle school would have been made to share the practice field. However, now, the middle school team can have the entire practice field to itself while the high school team practices on the artificial turf game field.
The boys and girls soccer teams also benefit from the turf. Soccer field lines were installed on the field as well as the football field lines. Gross said two seasons ago, the soccer teams weren't able to play games at the stadium field due to the poor drainage. Instead, they played games at the old middle school on Clinton Street.
“These young people in Athens will really benefit from this for a long time,” Gross said. “We are very grateful for what our school board has given us.”
Athens will debut the new artificial turf Friday night when the Golden Eagles take on Gardendale in a nonregion game. The Rockets opened their season last week with a 35-14 win over Mae Jemison, while Athens played Sparkman in a jamboree last Friday. The varsity portion of the jamboree game ended in a 0-0 tie.
“We went into the jamboree trying to get some questions answered,” Gross said. “We held one player out who was banged up a little bit, but he's good to go Friday night. There were some guys we needed to find out about, so we put them in situations to see what they could do. The big thing about that jamboree is we hopefully got some of those first-game jitters out of the way. And, we were able to look at us play on film and hopefully get some things corrected.”
Athens and Gardendale met last year in Gardendale, with the Golden Eagles hanging on for a 29-22 win after a Gardendale pass in the end zone was batted down on the final play of the game.
Gardendale finished the regular season with a 5-5 record and was the No. 4 seed from Class 6A, Region 6. They won their first-round playoff game against Fort Payne before falling to Homewood in the second round.
“Gardendale was a four seed in the toughest region in the state,” Gross said. “Our game with them last year, their quarterback didn't play. He's a junior and has got an offer from Arkansas. Their tight end is committed to Stanford, and they've got a wideout with an offer from Liberty. They've got some really good football players, and they're well-coached. It's going to be a heck of a challenge, but that's why we scheduled them. We want to play good teams and do it right off the bat. I think it will help us when we get into region play.”
While the new field is ready for game action, Gross hopes his team is as well.
“The players realize how blessed they are to be able to play on that field,” Gross said. “We're excited about it, but that ain't going to win us any football games.”