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Power & Progress 2019

Field of Dreams: CHS planning for baseball, softball fields in five-year plan

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"If you build it, they will come."

Those immortal words were whispered to Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) one evening in the fields of his Southwest Iowa farm. Weeks later, Ray had transformed several acres of cropland into a baseball diamond.

In a journey to reconnect with his late father, Ray met pioneers of the sport, watched ghosts playfully tease one another during a game one evening and, all the while, left an impact on everyone who has seen the 1989 film "Field of Dreams."

Columbus Public Schools administration may not have heard voices in the fields while looking over the construction of the new high school, but once that construction was complete, it was clear that it was, perhaps, not totally complete.

In a project expected to take three to five years, CPS is exploring the possibility of converting some of its new land, also former cornfields, into the school's first baseball and softball fields.

Since the Discoverers first put together a varsity baseball program in 1999, CHS teams have shared time at Pawnee Park. Softball, which had its first season in 1995, constructs a temporary wall in the outfield of a recreational slow pitch field at Gerrard Park for home games.

If and when the project is complete, CHS is planning for two baseball fields, two softball fields, some potential park areas with splash pads and activities for kids as well as perhaps tennis courts.

Owning its own baseball and softball fields would be a tremendous benefit to both programs and a money maker for hosting weekend club tournaments.

"We’ve got a freshman team, varsity team, reserve team and JV team and we’ve only got one field. Two fields make more sense to us," Columbus Public Schools Superintendent Troy Loeffelholz said during a meeting on Jan. 24, referring to the current baseball situation.

"If we split, we’ve got to put JV, varsity at Pawnee, and the reserve and freshmen somewhere else, which means you take two coaches away. With this, you have all four coaches in one site.

"Selfishly, you want all the kids together, and you want to be able to control your schedule and have the fields available when you needed them."

Pawnee Park has served the community well for varsity, American Legion and club competition on a field that has been in play for more than 70 years. But because it's the only regulation-size field, scheduling practice time and games, as well as organizing club tournaments, has been a struggle.

In most cases, the number of home games is limited due to field availability.

The City of Columbus was in talks to construct a new field separate from Pawnee Park until the new high school building its own diamond became part of the conversation.

Initially, CPS officials considered adding the cost of new baseball and softball fields to the bond measure passed for the high school building. However, the school board wasn't in favor of increasing the price tag of the bond by almost 20 percent.

Instead, Columbus Public Schools, its foundation and the Columbus Baseball Association will now attempt to raise the funds privately and have the fields ready for play sometime within the next three to five years, though five years seems to be a more legitimate time frame.

"It's conceptual at this point," Loeffelholz said. "We did the concept with the help of the CBA so we could go out and help raise the funds."

CPS, the school district's foundation and the CBA enlisted the services of Lamp Rynearson, a civil engineering, landscaping architecture and construction administration firm that began in Omaha and has been in business for many years.

Lamp Rynearson did a study in the fall of 2017 that took roughly four months. The information returned included a price tag of around $8 million for an "Anchor Activity Complex" that would cover 24 acres with the fields, press box, batting cages, dugouts and utility sheds.

The CBA provided the funds for the study.

"It would be a tremendous step forward for our baseball program," CHS head coach Jimmy Johnson told The Telegram. "Practice space is difficult to come by in the spring, and having another field would create much more opportunity for our program, specifically for our players to improve.

"It would also provide more options for games throughout the season. If it were turfed, there would be fewer rainouts and less practicing indoors. Another field would also be a huge step in hosting more tournaments for our high school and Legion teams. With just one field, it limits the options for tournaments. Hosting tournaments could be a boost to our whole community."

The baseball fields are slated to have the exact dimensions of Hawks Field at Haymarket Park where Nebraska plays baseball while the softball fields are also designed with Husker specifications from Bowlin Stadium.

"(Lamp Rynearson) talked to the Columbus Baseball Association, they talked to our buildings and grounds, we’ve had conversations with the softball community, our baseball coaches and our softball coaches to provide some input what this could look like," Loeffelholz said.

Building and owning its own baseball and softball field would make Columbus unique in the state. Most high school programs use diamonds operated and run by the local city or municipality.

"We never looked at it from the standpoint of what everybody else had," Loeffelholz said. "We looked at it more selfishly as not having to share with the youth organizations or whoever to battle for our field, especially practice time."

In order of ongoing development, however, the fields are behind the Kramer Education Center, and an early childhood development center, in terms of priority.

Additionally, there are no funds currently available or set aside for an Anchor Activities Complex. The school district would still need to consult the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure the land is right for water runoff or construct another pond to hold stormwater.

Then, dirt work would begin before any fences, walls or base paths can even be considered.

"It would change logistics as far as practice would be concerned. We would not need to travel across town, and we would have more ability to take advantage of locker rooms and weight rooms being on campus," said Paul Braun, CHS softball coach.

"Also, with being on campus, we would be more connected to the student body. It would be easier for students in other activities after their practices to come out to the field and watch us play. That helps provide that connection to the program.

"When facilities are on campus, everyone takes a little more pride in things. We have seen it when we have played at Millard West, for example. You get 15 to 20 students out there. It makes a difference and completes that connection."

The first step is to take the idea, in the form of brochures and pamphlets put together by Lamp Rynearson, and make presentations in the community to raise the funding.

"If somebody comes in and says, ‘I really want a baseball field,’ then I say, ‘If you really want a baseball field, we need a softball field,’ and they have the money to do so, we may be able to do something sooner than later," Loeffelholz said. "But right now, there are no funds available or put aside for this project."

A hefty donation would be welcome, like the program in Palmer received, though that amount at $1.5 million would cover less than half the cost.

"Until the time that happens, we're going to have to be slow and steady and raise the funds as we can," Loeffelholz said. "We're not even to the start of the campaign. We're starting to mobilize for the campaign. Once we know what the campaign looks like, we'll go 100 percent."

Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sports@lee.net.

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