Vernon Hills athletes storm the new field
Bruce Mahrenholz, former Cougar's athletic booster president, and "Project Turf" chairman Dennis Donelan admire the new turf Aug. 21 at Vernon Hills High School before the varsity soccer game. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 30, 2012 4:22PM
VERNON HILLS — Raising nearly $1 million in donations during a prolonged recession is a daunting task, but the effort paid off last week when the Vernon Hills Cougars’ soccer and football teams played their first games on the school’s new artificial turf.
“It’s a relief,” said Brian McDonald, Vernon Hills High School’s athletic director. “A whole lot of people put a whole lot of energy into making this happen. And we’re excited for our kids.”
The bake sales and numerous additional fund-raising campaigns made the Aug. 21 turf dedication ceremony possible. Before the varsity soccer game at Vernon Hills, the volunteers who helped raise more than $900,000 were celebrated. So was the shiny new field, on display under the bright lights.
Vernon Hills is now the owner of an AstroTurf GameDay 3D playing surface, built for football, lacrosse and soccer. Expected to last 10 years, McDonald described the artificial grass as “version 23” of the ground-breaking but now infamous original AstroTurf, which was most known for its use by the Houston Astros.
“Everybody remembers the original AstroTurf,” McDonald said.
“My first experience with AstroTurf, it was just concrete and carpet,” added Dennis Donelon, who led the Cougars’ fund-raising efforts.
But the 3D GameDay product features generations of advancements, Donelon and McDonald explained. The field has impact-lessening plastic pellets and a “root zone,” which minimizes how far those pellets fly when kicked to the irrigation system beneath the rocky base.
“It’s essentially like the dirt you would have in your lawn,” McDonald said. “No matter how you lay it down, there’s gazillions of holes to let the water through.”
Water was the reason that Vernon Hills began its million-dollar mission, McDonald and Donelon recalled.
Built in the early 2000s, the previous field was having difficulty absorbing water. McDonald said the tipping point came in the fall of 2009, when heavy rains forced school officials to find alternate locations for the football team’s final regular season game and playoff opener.
The 2009 Vernon Hills seniors played their last “home” game on Carmel Catholic High School’s artificial surface and their playoff “home” game was played on Libertyville High School’s artificial surface.
“Yeah, it stunk,” McDonald said.
“It had really been a great field, ever since it was put in,” said McDonald, adding that its time had come.
The district had saved $300,000 for a complete field reconstruction, but McDonald said those two games on turf got him thinking bigger. He soon spoke with Donelon, and a quest to raise money for a price tag triple what the district had saved began.
“We put together a plan to approach the local businesses, as well as local governments, with what we thought was a pretty important need,” Donelon said. “If we didn’t get the field fixed, it was going to be a problem for years to come.”
Many organizations in town agreed.
The village of Vernon Hills, the Vernon Hills Park District and the Cougar Athletic Boosters each conjured up $100,000. Alumni and local businesses also made contributions, many fund-raisers followed, and revenue from the school’s mobile phone tower filled in the gap.
“It was an incredible effort,” Donelon said.
Construction started in May, McDonald said, and the football and soccer teams held their first practices on their new artificial grass Aug. 8.
McDonald laughed last week about one unforeseen consequences stemming from the new playing surface. Unamused mothers began finding plastic pellets in their sons’ laundry.
McDonald said he is not expecting any more surprises, however. The 3D GameDay surface is in use at 600 locations, so other owners have worked many of the bugs out.
Having accomplished the fund-raising mission despite tough economic circumstances, community leaders are now turning their attention to other needs.
That list includes a double-sized basketball gym, a new facility for the dance team and a new floor for the fieldhouse.
“I might take a year off from the fund-raising,” said McDonald.
He is not excited to go back too soon to the donors and volunteers who assisted in “Project Turf.”
Others, though, may not have that kind of patience.
“Some of the kids around here have been joking around with me,” McDonald explained.
“‘When are we going to start ‘Project Dome?’” they asked him.