Research demonstration offers new options for school, municipal athletic fields

On the men’s and women’s lacrosse fields in the South Recreation Area, a turfgrass research project has created a more level playing surface that recovers from damage more quickly. That means fewer injuries for players.

The fields’ transformation from cool-season to warm-season grass is the result of a partnership between Chad Kropff, sports turf and outdoor facilities manager for the Department of Recreational Sports, and Mike Goatley, turfgrass specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension and professor of crop and soil environmental sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

   

Players on the women's lacrosse field. Two new varieties of Bermuda grass being tested on the men’s and women’s lacrosse fields in the South Recreation Area have the potential to make safer athletic fields.

“Our goal is to provide high-quality recreational sports facilities on campus,” Recreational Sports Director Chris Wise said. “If we can do it in partnership with academic researchers, and provide a learning opportunity for students, so much the better. This has been our most successful partnership to date.”

The trials began in June 2012.

The two grasses installed — Latitude 36 and Northbridge — are newer cold-tolerant Bermuda grasses. They are providing Virginia Tech’s recreational sports athletes higher-quality, safer athletic fields that will withstand more traffic than other grasses can tolerate. Because the new grasses don’t need to be re-sodded and re-seeded every year, they are also less expensive.

“It’s about innovation and giving people options,” Kropff said. “Hopefully, it will give county, municipal, and school sports field managers something new to work with.”

The growth in popularity of recreational sports has increased the attention outdoor facilities receive on college campuses. Extending the playing season is an important consideration in selecting sports turfgrass, Kropff said. “Recoverability is a huge factor,” he said. “Sports schedules are so intense, one right after the other. We don’t want to have to shut the fields down for maintenance, especially since more people are playing sports year-round and Virginia Tech is hosting more summer sports camps.”

Virginia Tech has played football on a variety of Bermuda grass called Patriot for several years. It is one of the first high-quality, cold-tolerant Bermuda grasses available in this area. The soccer stadium converted to Patriot grass three years ago.

   

A worker tends to the South Recreation Area fields. Virginia Tech’s use of Latitude 36 and Northbridge Bermuda grasses may encourage other school and municipal athletic fields switch to the denser turf, which recovers from damage more quickly.

“As researchers, we are always excited to see end users such as Jesse Pritchard [sports turf manager at the University of Virginia] and Chad Kropff put our research findings to work.” said Goatley, who has published extensively on Bermuda grass. He said the use of Latitude 36 and Northbridge on the lacrosse fields will play a large role in furthering their use around the state.

“I like to think of them as 'real world' research trials,” Goatley said. “We typically call these 'research demonstrations' because we will not likely collect a lot of scientific data off of these trials. But we will probably learn more from them than any scientific study could tell us because they are full-fledged, heavily trafficked athletic fields. And performance under real-life conditions is typically of greater interest to golf and sports turfgrass managers than many of our research-based trials. Whether we are talking about pee-wee football or soccer or taking it up to the levels of D-1 college or professional athletes, this research extends to any and all if it has to do with athletics.”

Goatley is president of the Sports Turf Managers Association, an organization in which Kropff is also active. Kropff is known internationally for his work with Major League Baseball renovating baseball fields. He was recently inducted into the Salem-Roanoke (Va.) Baseball Hall of Fame for his contributions to sports locally and around the world. The news of Kropff and Goatley’s research is spreading through their network of fellow sports turf professionals.

One of them is Jeremy Atkins, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 2012 with a degree in crop and soil environmental science. Atkins was Virginia Tech Turfgrass Club president and a student employee with Kropff. “For locals passing by on the Huckleberry Trail, this raised many eyebrows during the process, but I think it is great for the community,” Atkins said. “This can open people’s eyes to the possibilities of upgrading their local municipal facilities, to provide safer athletic fields for all. That is a turf manager’s dream. Safety is the number one concern of a sports field manager, hands down.”

Meanwhile, the sports turf innovations continue at Virginia Tech. The Department of Athletics is planning to convert the girls’ softball field to zoysia, a warm-season grass, and Rec Sports is weighing the options of using synthetic turf for its intramural fields, which are in play year-round.

While Kropff said he hopes high school and municipal sports field groundskeepers take note of the Virginia Tech experiment, homeowners might want to stick with cool-season grasses like Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue for their yards. “They stay green more months out of the year and they require less mowing during the active growing season.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Sandy Broughton at 540-231-3467.

About Bermuda grass

    A player steps on the field.

Here are a few quick facts about Bermuda grass.

  • Bermuda grass is a warm-season grass used on athletic fields and golf courses in the Deep South.
  • Bermuda grasses have a dense consistency. The turf is able to spread in a lateral rather than vertical manner and provides a much more consistent, safe playing surface. 
  • Its aggressive, creeping growth make Bermuda grasses great for athletic fields, but they are extremely high-maintenance grasses for the summer mowing period. 
  • The Washington Redskins have long played on Bermuda grass. More recent converts include the Philadelphia Eagles and Philadelphia Phillies.
  • The Latitude 36 and Northbridge Bermuda grasses come from the same breeding program at Oklahoma State University as the Patriot variety used in Lane Stadium. 
  • These new Bermuda grass turfs have high mowing requirements, but they also have greatly reduced pesticide and water requirements compared with cool-season grasses.

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