WOONSOCKET – There are certain warning signs that you simply can’t or shouldn’t ignore.
To George Nasuti, the injuries sustained by the city’s public high school student-athletes and preteens who ply their sporting trades on the multiple playing surfaces that fall under the umbrella of the Barry Field athletic complex were occurring at an alarming rate. Putting two and two together, the Woonsocket High athletic director deemed that at long last, something desperately needed to be done to make “the 17 acres of playground” that comprise the outdoor venue located off Smithfield Road both “safe and useful … it’s a valuable piece of land.”
The grim picture that Nasuti painted during a recent walk-through of Barry Field only intensifies the battle cry that has already sounded. For much of the near-six decades that this sports-dominated venue has been catering to football, baseball, soccer and field hockey, there has been very little in the way of upkeep. The grass would get mowed, but that’s about it.
“We were getting a lot of shin splints from all athletes, even the football players. Football players never get shin splints because they don’t run on cement. There also have been reports of ankle sprains, a couple of concussions and a fractured clavicle at the youth level,” Nasuti divulged. “I kept asking myself, ‘How are these kids getting hurt? Are we unlucky?’ When you’re getting shin splints on a grass field, it’s very concerning.”
Nasuti kidded that other than the removal of some fences and the installation of a football scoreboard over two decades ago, Barry Field has gone virtually unchanged from his high school playing days.
And we’re talking the 1970s.
The “cement” comment made by the chief overseer of Woonsocket’s athletic department is appropriate because that’s exactly how the ground at Barry Field feels when walking on it. The presence of far too many uneven spots probably helps in explaining the myriad of ailments and misfortunes that occur as athletes attempt to stop and cut before carrying on with the play – regardless of the sport.
“The ground is hard as hell,” Nasuti stated matter-of-factly. “You look around and see weeds because it’s never been fertilized or seeded.”
Luckily for Nasuti and the possible long-term validity of Barry Field, someone with a background in turf management is now the scene. In the four months since Dann Daly assumed the duties of official groundskeeper at Barry Field, the wheels have been in motion to at long last breathe fresh air into a tired and some may argue hazardous spot of land.
“Dann is the first guy in my lifetime since I’ve been up here that had any field background or interest,” said Nasuti. “I told Peter Fontaine (Woonsocket’s director of school facilities) that we’ve got to do this and hire him.”
With Nasuti driving the bus and Daly offering guidance and expertise, a much-needed facelift is in progress at Barry Field. Phase one of what Nasuti has mapped out to be a three-phase project has already been completed. A few weeks back, new grass was installed where the soccer field and outfield intersect.
Next on the docket is the infield and field hockey area with the football field serving as the final item on a to-do list that has been many years in the making.
“The stages would make Barry Field a safe place and it would look good,” Nasuti expressed.
Added Daly, “We want people to come and say ‘This is a gem.’”
Upon conducting a test of the Barry Field playing grounds, it was deemed that instruments and machinery that would allow for deep penetration were necessary. Skimming the top and applying the proper soil-enriching nutrients simply would not suffice – not when referencing a substantial piece of property that has gone untreated over such a lengthy stretch.
Such findings did not shock Nasuti. It became commonplace for him to venture to a Lowe’s or Home Depot to inquire about the availability of seed that would be scattered around Barry Field and serve as a “top dresser.”
The group that told Nasuti and Daly what exactly was wrong with Barry Field and how to restore it was eventually hired to refurbish two acres – the soccer field and the outfield. On Friday, Oct. 11, Sports Turf Specialties, Inc. came to Barry Field at 5:30 in the morning and did not leave until 7:30 that night. The Wrentham-based company sent a two-person work crew that came with the necessary equipment – equipment that penetrated 12 inches – that would allow them to complete the task in accordance to Nasuti’s grand vision.
“The materials and service ran about $7,000 with the bulk of it coming from the Woonsocket Athletic Coaches Association that was started 25 years ago to run a banquet,” Nasuti explained.
Serving as the yin to Nasuti’s yang, Daly quipped, “We needed to release this tension in the ground. We do have a core aerator that was donated to us, but I couldn’t even go down an inch and a half below the surface.”
The early returns from the work done by Sports Turf Specialties – this is same group that installed a new playing surface at Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium a few days before the arrival of Hurricane Sandy in Oct. 2012 – have been most encouraging and have Nasuti chomping at the bit to get to work on the next phase. The newly installed grass at Barry Field is noticeably green at a time of year when bare spots are commonplace.
“It was a test case, but everything has been positive,” said Nasuti.
The baseball infield may prove to be the greatest challenge. Members of the Woonsocket High coaching staff have implored Nasuti to address the noticeable “lips” down third base and first base lines, ones that are so glaring that it’s amazing that more players don’t stumble when rounding each bag.
“The lips keep on getting bigger,” Nasuti noted.
“This whole baby has to come out,” said Daly about the infield leaks that need to be plugged up.
The first-base lip is next door to the field hockey field, meaning it’s posing a risk to two distinctive types of athletes. If Nasuti is able to obtain the necessary funding, he won’t hesitate to move Woonsocket varsity, junior varsity and middle school baseball to Renaud Field for the 2014 season.
Both men believe that improving the football surface can take place while the season goes on simultaneously. Just like the baseball infield, however, major money is needed to make this a reality.
Asked about the practice facility that is used by the Woonsocket football team and other adult leagues, Nasuti called it “a mess and dangerous. It’s the “elephant in the room” that can be spruced up with the aid of city-owned machines – provided that people understand the magnitude and importance of the project that Nasuti is overseeing.
Or in keeping with the theme of overhauling Barry Field in such a way that has never been done or attempted – “unearthing.”
As with any project of such magnitude, Nasuti cannot fight the good fight alone. He estimates that the final two phases will cost roughly $25,000.
To that end, the athletic director has applied for some mini grants and has reached out to the New England Patriots’ Alumni Association in hopes of gathering ideas to raise the funds that are needed to make his vision a reality.
“We’ve been searching for every opportunity to get nickels and dimes for this place,” said Nasuti. “We’re looking for creative ways to fund it.”
Naturally, Nasuti is hopeful that local community leaders and businesses emerge and understand the need to make Barry Field safe. It will also be just as important to maintain the work that will hopefully be done though the help of the school department and local contractors.
“If the enthusiasm comes up, I thinking we can make Barry Field a top-notch place with the help of local people,” says Nasuti. “To me, this is the most valuable piece of property in the city.”
The athletes and coaches won’t be the only ones benefiting from a “new” Barry Field. The doors could swing open to hold any number of community-centered activities that range from Fourth of July fireworks, to middle school and high school “Olympic Days” to having families or groups rent space in a safe and secluded spot.
“There’s just so much potential here,” expressed Daly, his sentiments also shared by Nasuti and hopefully the rest of Woonsocket in the not-too-distant future.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03