Home field advantage is going to be a lot more advantageous for the University of Southern Maine Huskies this year.
A renovation project at Hannaford Field in Gorham erased years of wear and tear by the five teams that use it the most. Those programs include Women’s and Men’s Soccer, Women’s and Men’s Lacrosse, and Field Hockey.
“You can see the new shade, new green, new color, the new life,” said Tom Blanchard, Assistant Director of Capital Planning and Project Management. “And just the sheer excitement of seeing the branded logo, the Husky logo at center field. What more can you ask? That is so cool.”
The old field had a generic layout without any additional decoration beyond the basic boundary lines. Fans accustomed to seeing only green turf will now be greeted by a giant blue and white symbol of school pride as they approach the field from the parking lot. The view doesn’t get old for Blanchard who still smiles at the sight of the logo after weeks of overseeing the renovations.
Not only will players be able to see the difference, but they’ll also able to feel it. The upgrades include a new 15-millimeter layer of padding that the previous field lacked.
“Better on knees, hips, ankles, everything. Get knocked down, it’s softer on the landing. It’s awesome,” said Seth Benjamin, Head Coach of the Women’s Soccer Team.
A field’s ability to absorb impact is measured using the GMAX system. The numeric value increases as a field ages and hardens. When the rating reaches 200, the field is no longer deemed playable according to industry standards. A recent test of the old field returned a GMAX rating of 175, indicating its lifespan was nearing its end.
The padding is made to last for at least 20 years without hitting the GMAX limit. The top layer of artificial turf, however, isn’t as durable. The constant pounding of cleats takes a toll, and so does the environment. Faded colors are a sign of ultraviolet damage. Then comes the Maine winter. The only way to keep the field clear of snow is to run a plow across the surface. Between all of those factors, the turf needs to be replaced about every ten years.
Hannaford Field opened in 2011. USM went back to the same company that provided the original turf to handle its replacement. FieldTurf manufactures and installs its products for clients around the world.
Installation at Hannaford Field began soon after Commencement in May. The summer break in athletic competition was the ideal time to get the work done with minimal disruptions. FieldTurf crews began by cutting up and rolling the old turf, exposing the bare ground beneath. Over the next few weeks, they laid down the padding and new turf across an area spanning 93,000 square feet.
The turf is made in segments which fit together like a puzzle. As the wide-open swaths of green space are locked down, the field assumes its basic shape. The color-coded boundary lines go in separately along a network of seams. Workers insert them by hand, crawling inch-by-inch across the length of the field with the sun beating down on their backs. Making the heat even more oppressive is the hot glue they use to bind the fabric.
Even fully assembled, the field still isn’t playable until it’s been treated with a mixture of ground tires and sand called infill. One truck spreads infill over the entire surface while a second truck uses a rotating bristle to massage the grains down to the base of the turf. The infill reinforces the artificial grass to prevent it from flattening over time.
The renovations also took the fans into account. The pathway around the field’s perimeter was widened with a fresh layer of pavement to improve accessibility for people with mobility issues. Expanded safety netting stands 20-feet high and spans the full length of both endlines, making it safer to watch the action from behind the goals.
Major construction finished on June 23, well ahead of the projected end date in early July. The final cost of $801,000 also improved on the $900,000 estimate. Whether viewed from a budget line or the sideline, initial reactions to the new field have been positive.
“I’m probably biased, but I think it’s the best-looking field in the state, especially in the fall,” Benjamin said. “Leaves are changing color at night. For a night game, you can’t get much better than Hannaford Field at USM.”
Benjamin credits that wow factor with helping to win over prospective recruits who snuck a peek of the field during summer visits to campus. Good word of mouth is also spreading among a younger generation of soccer hopefuls.
Between July 18 and 21, Benjamin led a youth camp to teach soccer skills to girls in grades 5-9. Those campers were some of the first players to compete on the new field. Official team activities for USM’s athletic programs don’t resume until mid-August. Some of the women’s soccer players still found their way onto the pitch as camp instructors.
“I’m glad to have the Husky (logo) in the middle, represent our school a little bit more. It’s great. It’s beautiful,” said Bre Atwood during a break between drills. “I’m glad that we have one of the most pristine fields in our conference.”
Atwood is an Exercise Science major heading into her junior year. On the soccer team, her position is goalkeeper. She hadn’t yet put the new field to the ultimate test by diving for a save. As a forward, Ci-Ci Berthiaume doesn’t take quite as many dives. Still, she’s logged a lot of field time on her way toward a master’s degree in Leadership Studies and noticed a welcome improvement.
“It’s a lot more cushiony than before,” Berthiaume said. “I think the field before was pretty worn down. I remember playing on it when I was in eighth grade, so it’s been here a while. It’s nice to get back on the field again and feel how soft it is under our feet.”
Both Berthiaume and Atwood put the campers through their paces, knowing the kind of commitment it takes to reach the next level. Daily sessions lasted seven hours with a full roster of drills to improve footwork, passing, and shots on goal.
Instead of clipboards, the coaching staff carried water guns to cool off any campers who showed signs of wilting in the 80-degree heat. Words of encouragement flowed just as freely and had the same revitalizing effect. More than just lip service, the positivity emanating from the Women’s Soccer program was already running high even before the new turf arrived.
“We had a fantastic fall this past year and we’ve just added to that team,” Benjamin said. “We’re coming in very confident and very optimistic that this season is going to be very special for USM Women’s Soccer.”
The Women’s Soccer team will play its inaugural game on the new field against the University of New England on September 10. Two other teams will get there first, however.
The Men’s Soccer team will host Curry College in a game on September 4. A few hours earlier on the same day, the Field Hockey team will defend its home turf against Manhattanville College. Both the Men’s and Women’s Lacrosse teams won’t hit the field until their seasons begin next spring.