LA GRANDE — It’s a new day for local baseball and softball teams in La Grande.

The field renovations and turf installation at Optimist Field and Trice Community Field at Pioneer Park are just about complete, bringing state-of-the-art fields to La Grande. The renovations will allow for improved playing conditions and extended availability during inclement weather conditions.

“The kids and parents are really excited,” La Grande Parks and Recreation Director Stu Spence said. “I’m excited to see their reactions when they get to play on it next year. It’s going to be phenomenal.”

Northwest Sports Turf Solutions, a company based in Philomath, completed the turf installation on both fields after a handful of community members donated their equipment and efforts to prepare the fields for the project. The La Grande School District contributed $150,000 to the renovations, while Eastern Oregon University added $75,000 and the city of La Grande spent $25,000 and supplied construction equipment. Additionally, the city will be handling future maintenance costs.

The project officially broke ground at the beginning of August, and the fields are set to be fully operational in time for the baseball and softball seasons this spring.

New fields take shape

The crew of about five workers from Northwest Sports Turf Solutions made steady work on the fields, staying in town for a little longer than a week. According to Keaton Weaver, one of the employees, the company does anywhere from five to 10 turf installations on sports fields in the course of a year.

The company started when its owner, Ryan Starwalt, felt the need to upgrade the playing conditions of the baseball team he coached. Weather cancellations and unplayable practice conditions inspired him to take matters into his own hands for his team and create a company that could do the same for teams in the region.

Following the renovations in La Grande, that vision will exist for the local baseball and softball teams that frequent Pioneer Park.

“Everything went really smoothly,” Starwalt said.

According to Spence, there are several small projects that still need completion following the turf installation. The city will conduct irrigation and layout procedures on the outfield of Trice Community field and perform hydroseeding where there is currently dirt from the renovations. At Optimist Field, some areas will need additional seeding in order to level out the surface of the playing area near first base.

“Our goal is to get seed down ASAP,” Spence said.

According to Starwalt, the turf fields typically last approximately 10 years before needing an upgrade or replacement. He noted that one of the biggest advantages of having a turf field is the decrease in rain delays and cancellations. The parks and recreation department will maintain brushing the turf and replenishing the rubber on a regular basis.

Another positive factor of a turf field is expanded availability in the winter months, when most baseball fields in Oregon are unplayable.

“For the kids who are driven and want to work on their game in the offseason, nothing really holds them back,” Starwalt said.

Enhanced performance

The turf fields will be a major draw for hosting teams from all across the region, as well as improving the home teams’ ability to train and perform.

According to Cody Bowen, co-head coach of the La Grande High School softball team, the turf will allow the team to train much earlier in the offseason than in years past. The softball team previously had to wait to begin on-field training until the rain decreased, while some teams with turf in other areas of the state would be able to get a head start.

Prior to the turf installation, the outfield at Trice Community Field had a severe drainage problem that often cause unplayable conditions. The project fixed these drainage issues, which were a result of the field being built on what was originally a wetland area.

“The field never drained properly, so it was like playing on a wet sponge year-round,” Bowen said. “Now, we have less chance of injuries, and a proper field surface will improve the kids’ abilities to react and respond to the ball.”

The high-quality playing surface is expected to draw in visiting teams and tournaments, and the quick turnaround between games is another added bonus of a turf field. According to Starwalt, the time that would be spent preparing the dirt infields in between games is practically eliminated with turf. Teams will be able to switch onto the field after the conclusion of the previous game with little wait time.

New opportunities

Upon completion, the two new fields will be accessible to the public by reservation with certain permissions through the La Grande Parks and Recreation Department. The fields’ primary usage will be La Grande baseball and softball, Eastern Oregon University baseball and Little League.

Spence noted that the opportunity for tournaments at both fields will be a positive thing for both the local sports programs and the city’s infrastructure. The new pitching mound on Optimist Field is removable, which will allow for two softball games to be played at once during tournaments.

“I think it will be a big draw for folks that want to come here and play on them,” he said. “We plan on offering several tournaments throughout the year.”

Spence emphasized that the project came together through community involvement and outreach. With the new turf being placed, the city of La Grande secured a major upgrade in its facilities that will benefit the local sports programs and the community as a whole.

“Seeing the project come together with all the community supporters has been very rewarding,” Spence said. “We couldn’t have done it without them. It’s just the way we do things in La Grande. People are very generous and have been willing to give to improve our facilities.”

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