For outdoor sports in early spring, there’s no playing without first plowing

A plow driver might work for eight hours to clear a snowfall of five to eight inches from the full 93,000 square feet of Hannaford Field.
A storm on February 23 dropped five inches of snow on Hannaford Field.

A winter storm hit the Gorham campus of the University of Southern Maine just three days before the home opener of the men’s lacrosse season. By the morning of February 23, Hannaford Field was buried under five inches of snow. But the game on February 26 was never at risk of postponement with Matt Hirsch on the job.

Hirsch is the athletic playing surfaces supervisor for Facilities Management. During a winter storm, he can always be found behind the wheel of a John Deere tractor that’s been customized for plowing, driving back and forth across Hannaford Field.

Matt Hirsch drives the plow vehicle that clears the snow off of Hannaford Field.
Matt Hirsch is the athletic playing surfaces supervisor for Facilities Management.

“I try to keep up with the storm, but as you can see, it’s hard to do sometimes,” said Hirsch with a nod toward the side of the field still covered in snow.

Any snowfall of more than one and half inches needs to be plowed to keep the field playable. Hirsch begins his routine the day before the storm hits by tuning up his ride. It needs to be properly gassed, greased, and oiled so that it’s ready to roll from the moment that Hirsch arrives to start his shift on the day of the storm. He can’t afford to waste a moment.

Hannaford Field spans about 93,000 square feet. When it is covered by five to eight inches of snow, cleanup typical runs the full length of Hirsch’s eight-hour shift. Aside from a few breaks to eat lunch and refuel, Hirsch spends most of that time crammed into a cab that consists of little more than a driver’s seat surrounded by windows on all sides.

“It’s not bad. It’s got a heater and a radio in it. You’ve got a little bit of comfort going on,” Hirsch said.

The vehicle is a beast with two heads. An eight-foot-wide plow blade is mounted to the front. It’s different from the plows that clear city streets. They’re built with a sharp bottom edge in order to scrap away the snow and ice down to the bare pavement beneath. Hirsch’s plow is rounded on the bottom to prevent tearing into the artificial turf of the playing surface.

The vehicle used to remove snow from Hannaford Field is a customized John Deere tractor with a plow blade in front and a snowblower on the back.
The customized John Deere tractor used for snow removal has a plow blade on front and a snowblower on the back.

The back of the vehicle is outfitted with a snow blower. Hirsch uses it to trim the enormous piles that he creates along the sidelines and hurl the excess snow into the surrounding woodland.

The natural grass on the baseball and softball fields is too delicate to support plowing. The sun does most of the snow removal on those fields, which means they’re not usually game-ready on opening day. The baseball and softball teams play roughly the first quarter of their seasons in Florida until their home fields have dried out for the rest of spring.

The greater durability of artificial turf allows Hirsch to keep his focus on Hannaford Field. Both the men’s and women’s lacrosse teams depend on the field’s availability, for practice as well as games. Lacrosse players are a tough breed who expect to battle through frigid temperatures and even snow showers, but they still need basic traction to maneuver safely.

“We start in early February and get them going outside, get them used to putting the sweat suit on, get them used to playing in some spandex,” said Sam Manders, head coach of the men’s lacrosse team. “They acclimate to it. Not too many complaints. The boys want to play.”

A Maine Maritime Academy player tries to interrupt a Husky pass in a men's lacrosse game on February 26, 2023.
USM played Maine Maritime Academy in the home opener of the men’s lacrosse season.

Even that warrior mentality has its limits. Rather than practice through the teeth of a blizzard or risk frostbite in sub-zero temperatures, the teams will seek shelter under the dome at the Gorham Sports Center. But their home field is always the preference, and Hirsch makes every effort to give it to them.

“It’s teamwork. From the grounds crew to (Athletics Director) Al Bean to me to my assistants, we all have to work together to get the game off the ground,” Manders said. “I feel like USM administration and field crews do a good job of getting us on the field and giving us access to the facility we have and not holding us back at all.”

The weather continued to test that resolve. Just hours before Manders’ team was set to take the field for their first game, a snow squall broke out. The inch of snow it dropped wasn’t plowable but still needed attention.

All of the lines on the field received a quick brushing so they’d be visible to the players and referees. And since a white game ball would have disappeared against the snowy background, an orange ball was used instead. The adjustments took only a matter of minutes to complete and the game started on time at 3 p.m.

Addison Dietz swats away a shot on goal by Maine Maritime Academy in a men's lacrosse game on February 26, 2023.
Huskies’ goalkeeper Addison Dietz stretches out to block a shot.

The snow was still falling lightly as the Huskies lined up at midfield against Maine Maritime Academy. Even with the temperature at face-off hovering just above 20 degrees, both teams soon worked up a sweat. After a competitive first half, MMA pulled away to win, 9-19. But it’s only the start of a long season, and Hirsch remains hopeful the Huskies will find their groove.

“I just like to see them do well,” Hirsch said. “And if I can be a part of allowing them to play better by them having access to their turf and their playing surfaces, by all means, I love to have them play better.”

A succession of storms added to the southern Maine snowpack over the next week. Six inches on February 28. Eight inches on March 4. But taking a break wasn’t an option. The lacrosse teams needed their field plowed and Hirsch wasn’t about to let them down.