By Kristie Kahl
For any team, home-field advantage means a great fan base and momentum in the postseason — unless the “home” games are played off campus.
Rider competes in 20 Division I varsity sports, yet it is one of two schools that do not have an AstroTurf field for its field hockey program, which has had to play all but two of its home games off campus. But a field is in the works for 2010, and Athletic Director Don Harnum hopes for its completion by mid-April.
The advantage of a turf field, for any sport, is a faster game. For field hockey, the turf cannot be damaged the way grass can, so the team doesn’t contend with bumps and divots. For Rider’s field hockey team, when it actually played on grass, the Broncs had the experience of playing on that type of field, but ultimately the turf field is a must for the program to excel.
“[Playing on turf] is more about skill instead of who has the advantage of being able to play on grass,” said senior Lyndsie Johnson. “When it’s just turf you can spin faster, move the ball. It definitely is a benefit to both teams [playing in a game] because it proves that each team has to have the better skill at the end of the game.”
Another aspect the turf field will add to Rider athletics is recruiting. As more high school teams begin to play on turf fields, recruits look to play on the same fields for their college experience.
“Now, all of the sudden, most of the better high schools have turf fields,” Harnum said. “So it’s become a little bit more of an expectation, and [a turf field] is not as much a recruitment advantage as it is a recruitment detriment that you don’t have one.”
Originally, the $1.4 million turf field was supposed to be in place this past fall, but “with the state of the economy and the way the field was going to be funded, it had to be put on hold,” said Harnum.
When the time comes in the spring, the new field is going to be lit and have stadium seating. Down the road, the field will also have its own press box, like the aseball and softball stadiums.
With the many advantages of the turf field, the lit stadium-like atmosphere should be a great attraction to get the Rider community involved.
The new field will not just be for the varsity teams, but for the entire Rider community. After the turf field is put into place, it is open to intramurals, club sports, summer camps and conferences.
“I think [the field is] going to create a really exciting atmosphere,” field hockey Head Coach Lori Hussong said. “Of course, when you’re playing a night game, the student body has a better chance of getting a bigger crowd. So, that’s one advantage. Also the turf is not just for the athletes but it will be for intramurals as well. So, I think it’s a great thing for the campus overall.”
The new field will be built by the industry-leading company, FieldTurf, the university having received gifts and other fees to fund it. The current soccer field will be dug out and a drainage system will be put in. This system will aid the fall sports when it comes to cancelling games because of weather, field damage or flooding.
“Over the course of the eight to 10 weeks in the fall, it’s going to rain,” Harnum said. “It’s going to get wet. [The field is] going to get used every weekend because if the men are home then the women are away and then it’s the same thing the next weekend. So it makes it very hard to maintain the quality of a grass field, particularly in the northeast in the fall where it always rains.”
The only concern that Harnum sees that can be worked out in the future is organizing the schedule. The field will have to split its time between at least three varsity programs — men’s and women’s soccer and field hockey — throughout the fall season, including practice and game times, while also hosting multiple intramural and club sports.
“Now we have to work together to coordinate games,” Harnum said. “I think the advantages outweigh any of that and this stuff is just details that can be worked out. I look at this as a plus for all three of our programs.”
Not having the turf field quite yet has already affected one sport in particular.
Rider’s field hockey team had a spectacular run in 2009. The team claimed the No.1 seed in the Northeast Conference (NEC), earning it home-field advantage in the championship tournament.
As an NEC requirement, the championships must be held on an AstroTurf field. Since Rider was not able to install its planned turf field, the field hockey team had to play at Mercer County Community College (MCCC).
The Broncs were unable to move past the first round of the tournament, but they do not attribute the loss to the fact that they had to play at MCCC.
“I don’t think it affected how we played. We affected how we played in the tournament, and that was unfortunate,” Hussong said. “It’s a credit to them because they have that strong work ethic and they overcome a lot of obstacles because playing on grass and playing on AstroTurf are two different things.”
Although playing at MCCC may not have affected the Broncs’ play, it did, however, influence the amount of support the community showed.
“I think that if it was actually on campus, a lot more people would have come,” said junior Lindsay Rajeski. “And people like to come out and support, but when it’s off campus, people don’t know where to go or how to get there, and I feel like we would have gotten a lot more support if we were actually on campus.”
Throughout the regular season, the team was also forced to travel excessively, between practicing off campus and going to away games. The Broncs practiced at Princeton Day School in order to prepare themselves for turf play. The team also faced difficulties trying to find opponents that would play on grass, forcing them to play off site, travel constantly or not compete at all.
“It’s kind of a disadvantage when you have to play on grass and then go to the turf, whereas other teams are constantly on turf,” Rajeski said. “They’re always getting practice on there while we have to constantly go back and forth, so it’s important for us to adjust to what we’re playing on.”
Of the 18 regular season games, the Broncs played 11 away games. Of the seven home games, only two were actually played at Rider. For the other games, Rider traveled to Princeton Day School, Stuart Country Day School and MCCC.
“Our team is pretty resilient,” said Athletic Director Don Harnum. “and because we didn’t and don’t have turf I think they’re used to playing at all different sites. I don’t think that had a negative impact on the outcome but I’d like it to have more of a positive impact if we’re not moving them around.”
After all is said and done, come April, Rider will be renovated once again as it becomes home to a new turf field.
“We’re really happy to be getting the turf,” Hussong said. “For our kids, I think it’s going to be a better experience for them overall in their playing. It’s going to be able to help us take our game to a higher level.”