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College of the Holy Cross

Part Two of a Two-Part Interview with James D. Long, Superintendent of Grounds

By Jenny Boyle, regional editor

The crew uses a Jacobsen reel mower to keep the Kentucky bluegrass and Manhattan rye mix at an optimum level on the football field. A rotary mower can "chew the grass," says groundskeeper Jim Long, who finds that a reel mower cuts the blades closer and finer. A downside to reel mowers is they work poorly on tall blades of grass, forcing crews to mow fields every other day. In the background, a crewmember runs a turf vacuum over the field to pick up any loose debris.

After several conversations with Jim Long, superintendent of grounds at College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass., I realized I could probably write a whole book about the things he has witnessed over his 48 years in the business. A second article was definitely in order.

In last month's issue of LSMP (College of the Holy Cross, Part One, Aug. '05), Long gave us a glimpse of the day-to-day tasks he and his grounds team accomplish. His crew is split into four divisions--one of those being a three-man team that is solely devoted to caring for the athletic grounds on campus. Here, we take a more in depth look at their responsibilities.

Football Stadium Care

Long says the only thing that has changed since the school's main football field was built in 1909, is the way his crew takes care of it.

"My first year in charge of grounds, we went through and used herbicide to get rid of all the weeds," he says. "Before then, we didn't have any preemergents. There were no steps to take to prevent crab grass."

Long says the only way to prevent crab grass in those days was to try and keep it shaded. He says estate owners would even cover their lawns with tarpaper as a way to prevent the weed from growing. Around the time that he was promoted to grounds superintendent, preemergents had come out on the market and the crew was able to renew the weed-wrought field. "We started all over," says Long.

The crew uses an environmentally approved, latex-based "safe paint" to mark lines on all fields--either by hand, or with this Mongrel painting machine.

Now, the three-man team employs a thorough six-step process to keep the field in top shape all year long. They start with the cleaning process after the winter snow clears, sweeping the field with a Toro Rake-o-Vac to lift the nap of the grass. The field is then left to recuperate for a week on its own. Next, the team uses a bar-type aerator to pull up plugs of grass and soil. Long says the aerator is pulled across the field in horizontal, vertical and diagonal patterns because "by changing direction, you're punching more holes that way, rather than tearing up a whole field."

The resulting plugs of grass are given two to three days to dry out to prevent compaction.

"Compacted soil is not going to drain, so we drag the field," says Long. "If soil is compacted, knotweed will grow. [Knotweed is] the indicator that the soil is too compacted for someone to land on it, or for grass to grow properly. Turf is maintained for safety today."

After the plugs have dried out for a few days, the field is dragged with a section of chain link fence that is weighted down with a concrete parking bumper. This crumbles the plugs into fine soil particles, which are left to dry out for another two to three days. Following the dragging, the team removes any dried grass and begins the next step in the process--top-dressing. For a top-dress, the team applies at least 1/8 inch of a 50/50 mix of good-grade, screened farm loam and washed brick sand. They repeat the dragging process and then the field is ready to be seeded. They spread a mix of Kentucky bluegrass and improved Manhattan perennial rye with a seeding machine to achieve 90 percent germination. The field is then watered and kept at a good moisture level. As mentioned in the first article, Long uses outside contractors for pest management, rather than performing that task in house.

The award-winning Fitton Field has hosted the football games at College of the Holy Cross since 1909. A three-man crew is dedicated solely to the care of this and all of the athletic fields on campus.

Once the grass has grown in, the athletic division spends the rest of the spring and summer months cultivating the field for the fall football season.

"We use cultural practices," says Long. "We cut the grass at three inches through the summer, and in August we start cropping down to two inches. A few weeks after that, we cut it down to an inch and a half to prevent burning and salting. The grass has it nice and easy all summer."

Long says the biggest challenge the athletic division faces is working around the team practices and summer camps that the college hosts each year.

Just as they do on the football field, the team uses a reel mower to cut the grass on the baseball field every other day.

"The football coach tries to move the drills around so the [practice] field gets worn evenly," says Long. As for dealing with summer campers, he says the maintenance schedule usually has to be altered.

"We can't use certain chemicals when we want to and early [field] painting gets affected," says Long. But he says his team has so many tasks that they have learned to work around any hurdles.

"There's no slow time," says Long. "They're out there repairing tennis nets and repainting soccer goals instead. In this business we're always anticipating the season."

And speaking of seasons, when the battles begin on the gridiron in September, the athletic division kicks into gear preparing the field for home games...and often that means shoveling snow...lots of snow. In Part One of this feature, Long told us about the school's partnership with the Worcester County House of Corrections. Work release participants are hired as extra hands for various tasks around campus, including clearing the snow from the athletic fields. In fact, the story behind the school's first use of work release participants is a fabled one.

The team uses stone dust, a crushed stone byproduct, on the skinned areas of the baseball field. It will not support unwanted vegetation, which eliminates the need for herbicides, weeding and frequent edging; and it provides excellent drainage, which means games rarely have to be cancelled after a rainstorm.

"The game against Boston College is always the biggest of the year," explains Long. "There's a big rivalry between the two schools."

One year happened to be particularly was Doug Flutie's last game as a college player.

"There's no slow time...In this business we're always anticipating the season."----James D. Long

"The night before the game, we got 18 inches of snow fall," says Long. "We needed a lot of hands to shovel the whole stadium so we got the work release people to help."

In the end, the game was played as scheduled and the grounds crew realized the advantage of having extra help. They have employed seasonal helpers ever since.

Baseball Stadium

Caring for the football stadium is just one of the athletic division's many duties at Holy Cross. The same three-man team is also responsible for the baseball field, which has seen the likes of baseball greats Ted Williams and Babe Ruth, along with several other major league players, says Long. Both Williams and Ruth played in exhibition games at Fitton Field. In fact, Williams hit his very first home run as a professional ball player while playing against the Crusaders (the Holy Cross mascot) in 1939 at the annual Red Sox-Holy Cross exhibition game.

Long talks about his hard working team with the same reverence as he talks about those ball players.

"They're a good bunch of people," he says.

Like so many other innovations on the campus grounds, Long and his team have several ways to keep the baseball field in top condition and ready for play at all times. For starters, the baseball field doubles as a parking lot for football games, so the area is aerated a few times more per year than the football field to prevent compaction. When baseball season comes around, the crew prepares the field turf in much the same way as the football field. And on the skinned areas, the team has come up with a solution for sand that turns to mud on a rainy day.

"Years ago, we were using stone dust as an experiment in the warning track area," says Long. Stone dust is a crushed stone byproduct that has a granular, sand-like consistency and is almost white when dry and dark gray when wet. "We let it go without maintenance for a little while and no weeds grew. The traditional mix (of sand, silt and clay) we were using on the other skinned areas of the field was growing with weeds, even with maintenance."

Long and his team also noted how well the stone dust captured water compared to the sand/clay mix, which would turn to a muddy mess in a rainstorm. "The stone dust just drained beautifully," he says. "We decided to try it out everywhere and now I can't remember the last time a game has been canceled."

A student volunteer uses a Toro Sand Pro with a burlap mat attached to the back to groom the field.

As for care in the winter months, Long says they have plowed the baseball field in the past, but they try not to have contact with it.

"After a storm, we'll come in at midnight or two or three in the morning when the temperature drops and the ground is frozen so it will support a heavy machine," says Long. "We can take a 930 CAT loader and scrape off that layer of frozen ice. That's our secret. You've got to let the snow sit for about eight hours before you try to clear it, otherwise you'll rip up the field and really do some damage."

Long says no matter how bad the weather gets, the athletic division always manages to bring the field back to life each season and, he says, "It's never been sodded."

Additional Maintenance

On top of the rigorous care for the football and baseball stadiums, the athletic division also maintains two football practice fields, a soccer practice field, a series of intramural fields, a girl's softball field and an artificial turf field, which Long credits for taking the stress off the main playing fields.

"Before," he says, "our baseball field used to get multiple use. But now that we have the artificial turf field and we will have a soccer field, it will take a lot of pressure off."

The soccer field he speaks of is a brand new stadium that is currently under construction. Long says it will have a sand-based field with super drainage that will allow games to be played in the rain. The additional practice space, especially the low-maintenance artificial turf field, gives the athletic crew at least a small reprieve from their busy days keeping vigilance over pests and broken sprinkler heads. Though Long says you'll never hear any of them complain about too much work.

"I can't stress enough how hard my whole team works," he says. "I have an able crew that takes pride in what they do. 'It's not my job' is not in their vocabulary. Here, it's about hard work and team work."

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December 6, 2019, 1:34 pm PDT

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