JMA stadium

The home bleachers at JMA’s Ted S. Smith Stadium were long overdue for an update. The school got that and a lot more last year with a seating upgrade that can fit about 1,100 Trojan fans, according to head football coach J.T. Wall.

Dirt and construction equipment fill what will be a walkway and bleachers.

Temporary orange fencing surrounds the green rectangle of grass where games will be played this fall. In the end zone, a worker climbs scaffolding high above where fans will line up in just a few short weeks for soda and hamburgers.

This is the site of the new football facility at Berrien High School. A facility which Principal Angie Lovein and head football coach Tim Alligood said will include two new sides of seating, a concession stand building and a field house.

These types of construction projects are becoming more common in high school athletics, especially in high school football. Schools increasingly try keeping up with what other schools are doing and making sure their facilities are the best.

The SunLight Project — representing Valdosta, Tifton, Milledgeville, Dalton, Thomasville, Ga., and Live Oak, Fla. — spoke with administrators and coaches from several schools about the need to have the best facilities, as well as the costs and benefits of spending funds on upgrades.

“It’s kind of like that movie 'Field of Dreams,'" Alligood said. “If you build it, they will come.”

It’s about time

There are other things coming down the line in terms of facilities upgrades at Berrien County.

There are plans for a new track, and things such as lighting need to be addressed at the baseball field. But Lovein said everyone recognized the football facilities were in the greatest need of improvement.

The stadium was originally built in the 1950s, with some remodeling done later in the 1970s. The field house had only two bathrooms for all the coaches and players, and the concession stand lines were a nightmare.

“I wouldn’t go up there,” Lovein said of the old concession stand. “We felt like we lost a lot just because it was in such an inconvenient place and it was so small.”

At other schools, the stadiums faced issues.

At neighboring Lowndes High School, opposing football teams used to dress under the bleachers at Martin Stadium. The rooms were small for an entire team, with concrete floors and walls. An identical room on the home side of the stands is now used as a storage space for tackling dummies.

“We had a lot of teams that wouldn’t even go in there,” said Danny Redshaw, Lowndes’ assistant principal in charge of facilities. “They’d stay on the sideline, or they’d go out to their buses.”

The old Lowndes gym had its share of problems. Redshaw said he wanted to improve the acoustics in the gym.

“If there were 50 people sitting in that old gym just having a regular conversation, you and I could not converse like this just because of the acoustics in it,” he said. "It was one of those old, loud gyms.”

At Valdosta High’s Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, locker rooms were an issue. Valdosta City Schools Athletic Director Reginald Mitchell, who played for the Wildcats in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said the locker rooms were much smaller then, especially the visitors’ facilities which were located under the bleachers, similar to Martin Stadium.

In use since 1922, the stadium desperately needed new seating, concession stands, restrooms and other amenities to restore it to its former glory.

More recently, when current head coach Alan Rodemaker joined the staff as a defensive coordinator in 2010, he thought Valdosta lacked enough space to practice. He said he believes a varsity team needs two full fields for practice, and he thought the current space was “about a field and a half short.”

Rodemaker said some basic appliances were missing, things he had been accustomed seeing elsewhere.

“Everywhere I’ve been, we washed the kids’ clothes every night and then washed game uniforms on Saturdays,” Rodemaker said. "But the day-to-day, I guess they didn’t wash practice uniforms. So that was surprising to me.”

All of these facilities had shortcomings that were recognized and needed to be addressed. The focus then shifted to how to get the funds to fix the problems.

Show them the money

For public schools, the equation is often fairly simple. 

Money for athletic facilities upgrades mostly comes from Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes.

Baldwin High School’s football stadium was completed in the mid-2000s and received upgrades in summer 2016. The concrete bleachers on the home side of the field got new aluminum seating, a fence was placed around the exterior of the stadium, and additional fencing was installed between the bleachers and the football field to the tune of a little more than $170,000. Also, the track around the field got a complete renovation with an all-new surface that cost almost $450,000. 

All the projects were paid for through E-SPLOST money.

Baldwin High head football coach Jesse Hicks said he definitely believes facilities need to be kept up to date for the sake of both players and fans alike so all parties can be proud of their home field. Having fans/supporters feel comfortable (good lighting, plenty of space, sufficient restroom facilities for the crowd) is a high priority for the coach.

“Your want to have somewhere the community can be proud of, but also a place where the kids can be taken care of,” Hicks said.

While he said he believes the stadium as a whole is “very nice,” Hicks has lofty dreams for the football stadium that includes closing the bowl on one side to create a horseshoe, but thinks there are other things that need to be done first like getting the training equipment necessary to make the team more successful.

Berrien County approved a SPLOST last fall for the construction of the football stadium, but it also included plans for improvements to the tennis facility and track as well as a new band room. Even though the project isn’t cheap – Berrien School Superintendent Robin Marcrum gave an estimated cost of $4.4 million — Lovein said the support for SPLOST was overwhelming.

“I think the whole community knows there’s such a need,” Lovein said. “No matter what, Friday night football’s really big here. It’s where the community comes together.”

Thomasville High School benefitted from a SPLOST that provided $1.65 million for improvements to its stadium, with more than $653,000 devoted to new turf. 

Similarly, Valdosta passed a SPLOST II resolution in 2002 that covered the cost of renovations to Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.

The renovations, which cost less than $7 million, according to Jennifer Steedley, Valdosta City Schools director of public relations, added a new two-story press box and artificial turf playing surface to the field. There were also new locker rooms and both home and visitors’ side stands. Seating capacity rose to more than 11,000.

Valdosta City Schools Superintendent Dr. Todd Cason said when it comes to any type of athletic facility upgrades, there are people who voice their opinion that too much money goes toward athletics. While he said he respects their opinion, he believes the money is distributed fairly.

“I think we’ve done a good job of planning for that so that any child that comes to our school district can find their niche, they can find their place,” Cason said. “To do that, you have to spend money and try to spend it equitably. Not equally, but equitably across that district.”

Lowndes County has also been on the receiving end of a large amount of SPLOST money during the past decade. 

The gymnasium, which cost $8 million and opened in 2007, was paid for through SPLOST funds.

SPLOST paid for renovations to the Vikings’ football facilities, highlighted by a new weight room, a remodeled home side of the stadium and new locker rooms for visiting teams. The upgrades cost approximately $5.8 million.

However, some improvements were paid for in other ways. 

Lowndes head football coach Randy McPherson said some things, such as the updated equipment in the new weight room, was paid for by athletic funding such as ticket revenue. There’s also the JumboTron, which McPherson estimated at $300,000, that was a “Touchdown Club endeavor” and is nearly paid off.

At Valdosta High, the Touchdown Club paid for a washer-and-dryer set at the school shortly after Rodemaker joined the staff. At the new Valdosta High School opening this school year, there are two washer-and-dryer sets included in the cost of the facility.

Private donations have paid off for other schools. 

Suwannee High School in Live Oak received $55,000 in alumni donations to upgrade its weight room this year. 

In 2010, the Colquitt County Packer Touchdown Club paid for approximately $585,000 in upgrades to Tom White Field at Mack Tharpe Stadium, including putting turf on the field.

Private schools are dependent on donations because they are not eligible to receive SPLOST funds. 

For example, John Milledge Academy in Milledgeville received roughly $325,000 from school supporters to build new bleachers and fencing around the football field in 2017.

When Valwood School in Valdosta moved to its new campus in 2002, local families stepped up to provide the money.

“The Hathcock family gave money for the tennis court, primarily gave the most money for the tennis court,” said Brett Martin, Valwood athletic director. “The Scruggs family donated for the track. The D.K. Hollis family, he had grandchildren here and his children have gone here, they donated for the softball field.”

Martin said Steve Browning, as a baseball parent, has been generous, donating money for a hitting facility with locker rooms (complete with a Gatorade vending machine) that now serves as the Valwood center field fence. Browning gave money for a covered grandstand to shade Valwood baseball spectators from the sun at the aptly named Browning Field.

The approximate cost for the projects is about $750,000. Martin said if he only had the school budget for facility upgrades, nothing would ever get done. That’s why donors are so critical.

“When you get somebody that’ll give you that big lump sum to begin with and get you started, it’s so much easier to go and ask other people and get them to join in,” Martin said. “People by and large will.”

Martin said parents are aware of what’s happening at other schools in the area. They see what SPLOST money does for public schools, and they want to make sure their children attend a school with similar amenities.

“It’s been fantastic, the boom in schools over the past 10 years,” Martin said. “With that comes nicer facilities, it’s just the way of the world. Our parents see that, and the kids that are over here, they want them to have the same kind of experience.”

For the greater good

New facilities may seem to only benefit their specific sport. But coaches and administrators say they help other athletic programs, as well as the school and community as a whole.

A common theme across many schools is the desire to have facilities that can host other events. Whether it’s state playoffs or anything else, such as Special Olympics competitions that were held at Colquitt County High’s new indoor facility, hosting is at the forefront of facility planning.

Part of the future construction plans at Berrien is a new track. Lovein praised the quality of the Berrien track team that sent several students to state meets last year but lamented the current track at Berrien can’t host any meets.

“They deserve to be here and their classmates and their town watching them,” Lovein said.

John Milledge Academy head football coach J.T. Wall said his football facilities are at a point where he’d feel comfortable hosting a Georgia Independent School Association All-Star Game if asked. 

Due to the new gym at Lowndes, the Vikings host state wrestling sectionals.

Mitchell, the Valdosta athletic director, professed a desire to have his facilities “host-ready.” He said maintaining that standard benefits the community and the school.

“People have got to have somewhere to stay, they’ve got to have food to eat, so forth and so on, they’ve got to pay for gas,” Mitchell said. “It really helps our community when we’re able to host large events.”

Facility upgrades also benefit students who aren’t playing sports, sports officials say. For one, Rodemaker said seeing sparkling new facilities might encourage more students to “get out of the hallways” and participate in a sport.

Weight rooms are available to athletic and non-athletic students. Students taking a weight-training class have access to new and upgraded weight rooms at Lowndes, Valdosta and Suwannee.

Valwood’s weight room, built after the 2015 football season, is used by weight-training classes during the school day. However, the facility can act as a recruiting tool.

Austin Grant is the school’s strength and conditioning coordinator, and he runs his own training business, Edge Performance, from the facility before and after school. Martin said high school students from around the county come to train there, offering them the opportunity to see what else Valwood offers.

“They see what’s going on out here and if they’re looking for another option for some reason, then here it is,” Martin said.

But ultimately, the facilities are geared toward student-athletes. As Rodemaker said, athletics are often the main draw for students to come to school.

“A lot of those kids, whether people like it or not, they come to school because they can play athletics,” Rodemaker said. “I mean I’m almost to my doctorate now, but I’ve gone to school because I could play ball. A lot of our kids, if we weren’t offering athletics, they wouldn’t come to school and they certainly wouldn’t make grades.”

The on-the-field benefits are there. Valwood coach Justin Henderson said the new weight room helped his team with conditioning in state playoff games last year.

“That means that weight facility’s worth every penny,” Henderson said.

The new weight room at Lowndes has had other effects. The Vikings used to gather before the game and at halftime in what was then the weight room, just behind the end zone in the team’s field house. Now, with the weights elsewhere, McPherson uses the space as a meeting room for the team.

“We meet everyday with the team in there and do character lessons and stuff like that,” McPherson said. "I feel like it’s important that you have a place where you can sit the whole program down.”

At the end of the day, administrators recognize the necessity of having top-notch football facilities. Football makes the most money, especially in South Georgia, but some of the funds are used to support other sports.

Same with facilities.

Football stadiums at Valdosta and Valwood play host to soccer games. Mitchell said Bazemore-Hyder Stadium has been equipped with Sprinturf, a surface better designed to handle multiple sports.

A new practice field, complete with sidewalks and a wall around it, was built at Dalton High School five years ago at a cost of $1.35 million. The field is used as a practice field by the football team, but as a competition venue for the lacrosse and track and field teams, as well as the soccer team when weather forces the team to play on turf.

While the facilities are nice, coaches who use them generally agree on one thing: They don’t directly translate to more wins on the field.

Take the case of Lowndes, for example. 

The Vikings won three state championships in the years leading up to the renovations to Martin Stadium. In the decade since, the team hasn’t lifted the trophy once.

“I think new facilities will help, but I think great players are the difference,” McPherson said.

Others feel the opposite.

“When a team has success, people are going to pay to come watch them, which in turn offsets some other things,” Thomasville Athletic Director Chris Merritt said. “It allows them to take advantage of opportunities. Facilities have a direct impact on success. You can’t do anything without a great playing surface.”

The Arms Race

The grand opening of Berrien’s new stadium is still more than a month away; the Rebels’ first game in the new stadium isn’t until Aug. 31, a later date to provide a safety net in case of construction delays.

Even so, that game is fast becoming the hottest ticket in Berrien history. The Touchdown Club has been selling reserved seats, and they’re going fast.

“They’re driving us crazy because we don’t even have (the bleachers) up yet and we’re trying to visually decide where we’re going to put them,” Lovein said.

Such community enthusiasm is part of the reason schools are driven to keep their facilities updated. It’s why the work of a school is never done when it comes to athletic facilities.

Valdosta has the most reason to be complacent; the Wildcats are moving into a new high school this fall. The new school has a gym with three basketball courts, an auxiliary gym for wrestling and competitive cheer and a state-of-the art track and new tennis courts, among other things.

However, Superintendent Cason isn’t satisfied. His focus is the baseball and softball complex, with a goal of building a press box and batting cages as well as putting turf on the fields. He estimated the cost of the project as between $3 million to $5 million.

Colquitt head coach Rush Propst isn’t sitting back when it comes to his football stadium. He said he’d like to see the stadium equipped with better lighting, a new dressing room for visiting teams and a press box that accommodates larger coaching staffs and advanced technology.

Both of the schools have dealt with talk of a potential new football stadium. On the site of the new Colquitt County High School, space has been set aside for a new stadium should it ever be pursued. Propst said the new stadium could cost anywhere from $15 million to $25 million.

However, Propst said he’s “not pushing for a new stadium.” There’s a sense of tradition at Tom White Field at Mack Tharpe Stadium, the domain of the Packers since 1954 and home of three state championship teams.

Of course, no stadium oozes tradition like Valdosta’s Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, home of the winningest program in high school football history. Despite all the history at the current location, Cason said he’s asked often by fans if and when a new stadium will be built at the location of the new high school on Inner Perimeter Road.

Rodemaker said he believes 60 or so acres have been set aside at the new Valdosta High site for a potential new stadium. However, he added it would take a buyer of the current stadium and surrounding property, most likely Valdosta State University, to provide a good chunk of the funding.

“If you sell it to somebody, you’ve got to have the dollars to build a new one,” Rodemaker said. “The dollars that they pay for that facility’s got to be close to the dollars that you’re going to pay to rebuild it.”

With new facilities, especially something as grand as a new stadium, comes an added boost of pride within a community. Look no further than Berrien, where tickets for the home opener are selling like milk and bread before a snowstorm.

In Valdosta, particularly, facilities are cause for a community to puff out its collective chest. It’s not enough to be at the top of the leaderboard in the all-time wins rankings. Everyone wants respect for the facilities where the team wins.

“I feel Valdosta historically has always been a program that’s been in the forefront, leading,” Mitchell said. “We’ve kind of been the program that people have kind of, for lack of a better term, idolized through the years. So we want to keep that aura about ourselves.”

Outside of instilling pride in their fanbases, schools are also competing with each other. It’s part of what Valwood's Martin dubbed an “arms race” in high school athletics, a phenomenon that has soaked into high school athletics to the point where it can even be seen in the email signature of Thomas County Central High School Athletic Director Sam Holland: Nulli Secundus, or “second to none.”

McPherson said he believes the race started in Texas. He went to visit several of the top high school programs there in 2004 and was blown away by what he saw.

“I looked at three or four of the top programs and I saw their facilities,” McPherson said. “Of course two of them had indoors. One school I pulled up to, Allen High School, I pulled up to the field house and I thought it was the high school.”

McPherson returned and spoke with administrators about what he’d seen, and just a few years later, Martin Stadium was renovated.

In 2004, renovations at one school might not have meant much to students and parents of another school. But in today’s age of social media, athletes, just like coaches and administrators, are always aware of what other schools have.

“The pressure’s there because the mindset has changed of today’s athletes,” Mitchell said. “It’s kind of a ‘What have you done for me lately?’-type mindset. To make your program attractive, you’ve got to make sure you have those bells and whistles that folks are looking for.”

While students transferring schools for athletics isn’t as much of an epidemic in South Georgia, it can’t be totally discounted. Martin said if and when athletes are looking for a change of scenery, schools have to be prepared.

“He’s not going to transfer to a place that’s a dump,” Martin said. “Regardless of the level of coaching, regardless of the opportunities to play, by and large, they’re not going to transfer from a really nice facility to a place that’s a dump. They’re just not going to do it, so everybody’s got to keep up.”

These types of constant upgrades don’t come without hardships. At Berrien, the varsity locker room has been housed in classroom 313 since construction started after last season. The weight room has been an old auto-mechanical shop, complete with a lift for a car under one of the platforms.

The rest of the school has been affected. The soccer team played on the road for the entirety of the 2018 season, and graduation had to be relocated from the traditional football field location to the conference center on the Tifton campus of the University of Georgia.

“My daughter graduated this year,” said Lovein, a Berrien alumna who graduated on the field herself. “Nobody wanted graduation at this high school more than me.”

But at this point, that’s just part of working in high school athletics.

“It’s kind of turned into who can up the ante,” Alligood said.

When Valdosta City Schools Superintendent Dr. Todd Cason is out and about in Valdosta, he gets asked one question more than any other.

“When you talk to fans, they ask about an indoor practice facility,” Cason said.

In a region that is bombarded by constant heat and frequent afternoon rain showers, indoor practice facilities offer football teams the opportunity to practice no matter what the weather is doing.

Cason said he always tells fans there currently isn’t the funding for an indoor facility, but he continues to get the question because “they know what other school districts are doing.” 

In this case, one district stands out above the others: Colquitt County.

Voters in Colquitt County approved building an indoor facility, which is more than 73,000 square feet, in March 2016. Funding for the approximately $3.7 million structure came from an E-SPLOST referendum.

The head coach of the Packers, Rush Propst, visited similar facilities in other states. In addition to letting his team practice every day, he said it can be used by other outdoor sports at Colquitt and it benefits the football players as students.

“We think this will let our kids get home earlier a lot of days to let them rest and let them study,” Propst said.

The facility has a 100-yard turf field with one end zone, as well as a kicking net with a simulated goal post. In addition to eight 24-foot fans, there are also 10 overhead coiling doors which can be opened to increase airflow.

The facility opened this spring and includes a new 8,300-square-foot weight room. Colquitt County School System Superintendent Doug Howell has called it the “crown jewel” of other recent facility upgrades.

“And when you have a crown jewel, as Doug Howell called it, you know you’ve got a leg up on your opponents,” Propst said.

While indoor facilities have yet to come to fruition elsewhere, the conversations are always out there. Lowndes High School head football coach Randy McPherson said an indoor facility hasn’t been discussed at Lowndes, but he knows it’s a constant topic on the minds of fans.

Valdosta High School is also without an indoor practice facility. However, Wildcat head football coach Alan Rodemaker said he believes an indoor facility is eventually in the plans at Valdosta’s new high school, although he’s not sure when.

"That facility’s used more than any facility on campus,” Rodemaker said. “Football probably uses it less than anybody else. You’re talking about baseball can practice in there, track. ... It’d be something for the whole athletic program.”

Rodemaker said an indoor facility would greatly enhance the entire athletic program. However, he made it a point to say that “as far as necessity, there’s not anything down here that’s probably a necessity.”

Cason can speak to that as well as anyone. He noted there are no indoor playing facilities in Georgia, so players have to get accustomed to the heat and humidity of playing outdoors.

As for rain, he recalls coaching at Valdosta and seeing former coach Nick Hyder stay out in the storm as long as possible before moving practice to the gym.

“It was just as intense as it was on the field,” Cason said. “Now we couldn’t tackle, but you teach the fundamentals in that capacity. Now, other teams might be able to tackle if they’re inside, but we’ll still get that same kind of fundamental teaching in the gym.”

The desire for an indoor facility isn’t just limited to public schools that could utilize tax-based funding. Valwood School Athletic Director Brett Martin said an ultimate goal is to have an indoor at Valwood. He said staff has spoken to people about where it would go and how much it would cost.

While it’s not necessarily right around the corner, something Martin never would have thought would happen at Valwood is now a distinct possibility.

“Ten years ago, if you’d have said, ‘Would you ever think about having an indoor?’ I’d laugh and laugh because you know it’s not going to happen,” Martin said. "You didn’t think it was going to happen. But now, all that stuff becomes more of a reality as you see other people do it.”

The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Jed May and Wayne Grandy.

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