We see wonderful acts of community pride and community spirit on a regular basis in our world of high school activities. People at New London-Spicer High School know all about those qualities, thanks to a band of volunteers who have transformed the Wildcats football facility into what might be the finest in Minnesota.
Beginning in 2005 with about a dozen fathers of football players, the NLS Wildcats Grounds Crew has grown to more than 50 members. They do everything from mowing the grass and painting the yard lines (on the practice fields, as well) to improving the sound system, upgrading plumbing systems, laying concrete and everything else that makes Pederson Field so special.
And believe me, it is special. I visit athletic facilities all over the state, and Pederson Field is an absolute showplace. The grass is equal to Target Field, the end zones are painted with the school colors of black and gold in a checkerboard pattern, large NFL-quality numbers mark the 10, 20, 30, etc. … and all the work is done by volunteers.
Not only do the dads not receive any compensation, they all pay dues of $40 to belong to the group. They wear matching black t-shirts when they gather to improve the field, as they did Wednesday evening. They all had already put in a full day’s work on their own jobs, but they spent several hours preparing Pederson Field for the season ahead.
“Last week we had 36 guys here working,” New London-Spicer football coach Dan Essler said on Wednesday. “And this is the third night in a row they’ve been out here.”
One of the big jobs Wednesday was improving the entry into the stadium. When fans come out on Sept. 2 for the opener against Paynesville, they will walk across a giant concrete football – colored brown and decorated with a Wildcats logo – as part of the latest in many improvements. As the concrete was setting Wednesday, Grounds Crew leader Tom Tengwall wrote “GROUNDS CREW ‘11” in the surface.
“It’s the passion, it’s the pride,” said Tengwall (pictured at left directing the crew), one of the original members of the Grounds Crew. From that small group of original volunteers, the membership has grown steadily. “We try to get four or five new guys each year, people with kids in seventh or eighth grade,” Tengwall said. “We have a few dads who don’t even have sons.”
When I asked New London-Spicer athletic director John Vraa how much money is saved through all the volunteer work, he just smiled and shook his head. “Oh, we’re talking thousands of dollars a year,” he said. In addition, much of the equipment used and installed is owned by the volunteers or purchased through funds from the Wildcat Booster Club or 50-50 raffles on game nights.
“And this is such a diverse group of guys,” Vraa said. “There are a lot of guys in the trades; masons, electricians, there’s just so much knowledge out here. And I think they get a pretty good kick out of Friday nights, watching the kids compete.”
The volunteers – whose ranks include a professional agronomist -- don’t score touchdowns or make tackles, but their work certainly has helped play a role in the success of the Wildcats football program. The team was a Class 3A state semifinalist in 2008 and won the state championship in 2009. They finished with a 9-2 record last season, with both losses to state runner-up Albany. Hopes are high for another great season in 2011.
The scene Wednesday evening at Pederson Field looked like this: A concrete truck dumped part of its load at the new stadium entryway before being driven to the practice field to create mud-free footing at the players’ water station … a boom was raised up to the one of the speakers attached to a light pole for wiring work … new speakers were attached to shorter wooden posts and the posts were secured to the back of the bleachers …. a crew member sprayed vegetation killer underneath the bleachers to make the area look sharp … 80 gallons of paint were mixed and sprayed onto the stadium and practice fields as separate crews made sure the ropes that set the lines were straight, and painted the hash marks as well as the numbers every 10 yards. It was a volunteer beehive.
In the middle of it all, New London-Spicer sophomore Mac Johnson was manning a video camera. The Grounds Crew’s work has been noticed by people from other communities, who often ask, “How can we do that, too?” Tengwall acted as film director during part of Wednesday’s work session, in the efforts to create a video that will explain how everything gets done.
All that work makes game nights something special. Fans who don’t want to sit are allowed to follow the action closely by walking on the track that surrounds the field, a 10-gauge cannon is fired when the Wildcats score and sound expert Keith Bangasser makes selections from his 40,000-song electronic music catalogue to play on the sound system.
It’s a very special place, tuned to perfection by some very special people.
--To see a photo gallery from New London-Spicer, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
NOTES FROM THE ROAD …
--Wednesday was a beautiful day for a drive, one of those days we will dream about during the cold winter months. One good thing about winter, though: there’s no road construction. I took I-94 north past St. Cloud before turning west on Highway 23. There was a darn good backup on I-94 with one lane closed, and Highway 23 had a detour that included some really fun driving on gravel. Coming home, I droves south through the little village of Kandiyohi, then turned east on Highway 12 through Atwater, Grove City, Litchfield, Dassel, Cokato, Waverly, Delano and back into the Twin Cities. All told, a 255-mile round-tripper.
--Ah summer: I saw a great big truck loaded down with sweet corn in Monticello. I can taste it now.
--Dinner? Papa Burger combo at the A&W in New London before heading home.
--Thursday night I'll be in Fulda for the season-opening Zero Week football game between Murray County Central and Fulda. On Friday I'll head to St. Peter to see the Saints take on Minnewaska in another Zero Week game. Photos will be posted on Facebook and I'll post a Zero Week wrapup story here on Saturday.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 3
*Miles John has driven: 684
--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn