PRAIRIE GROVE -- Farmington's boys soccer team made the best case yet for Prairie Grove to install turf at Tiger Den Stadium by thrashing the Tigers, 10-0, on Monday, April 3.
The hot button issue's been discussed repeatedly over the last several years, particularly after U.S. 62 rivals, Lincoln (2017) and Farmington (2019) added turf to their football fields and also added soccer as a sport.
The Tigers fielded soccer teams before either of their closest rivals thanks to the pioneering efforts of Kristen Walker, who served as an assistant to Tommy Roy for the 2023 girls soccer team which reached the Class 4A State semifinals before losing to eventual state champion, Harding Academy, 7-0, on May 13.
Walker's persistence got the late Mike Green to give the nod for the school to add both boys and girls soccer when he was athletic director. The first varsity season was in 2013, but now both rivals' facilities far exceed Prairie Grove's outdated infrastructure which allows their teams to get in more practices to refine their skills and orchestrate teamwork. Prairie Grove's boys soccer team lost 4-1 at Lincoln on Feb. 28.
A turf football field, provides multiple advantages, such as conducting marching band practice in addition to use for football, soccer and physical education classes.
Borrowed Soccer Field
In years past, Prairie Grove had to borrow Lincoln's turf field to host a boys soccer match against Morrilton in a 4A West Conference tournament on Wednesday, May 1, 2019, because the field at Tiger Den Stadium wasn't playable.
In a letter dated Feb. 28, 2022, former superintendent Reba Holmes acknowledged that procuring a new football field/sports complex came in at the top of the list with a 34% response rate from an Oct. 2021, parent survey sent out to draw community input. Survey question No. 6 asked, what facility improvements would parents/guardians recommend the district make in the next five years?"
According to Holmes' letter, the district received approximately 200 replies.
Improvements to Tiger Den Stadium ranked 14 percentage points higher than the next highest response, "better drop-off/pick-up lanes and parking areas" (20%), and 16 percentage points higher than the third response, "update middle school and junior high" (18%), but that became the priority while public desire to upgrade Tiger Den Stadium was ignored.
In July 2022, GeoSurfaces submitted a proposal that showed a turf football field would cost $1.1 million that included an eight year warranty with the option to renew up to three cycles. Holmes listed options for funding, but the Prairie Grove School Board voted to table the turf project as well as an expansion to the home bleachers.
Old Fashioned Stomping
Farmington, Prairie Grove's No 1 rival, won a Class 4A State championship in boys soccer in 2022, in the school's second season of varsity competition. Farmington came to town on Monday, April 3, and did its best to wake up the Prairie Grove school board and next administration to the plight of Tiger Den Stadium, which when it's wet can't be practiced on for soccer.
The high-powered Cardinal offense dominated Prairie Grove from start to finish in a lopsided 4A West match that could have been totally out-of-control if it weren't for the integrity of Cardinal head coach Ian Biggs.
Leading 10-0 at halftime, Biggs walked across the field to the Prairie Grove sideline and petitioned the soccer referees to be allowed to insert several players into the lineup who weren't issued numbered jerseys. Biggs explained these kids typically weren't getting playing time because of the jersey issue. The referees understood and granted his petition.
That's a good problem to have, when a coach has a high volume of student-athletes coming out for a sport that those numbers exceed the total of jerseys available.
Rather than continue to run up the score, Biggs capitalized upon an opportunity to put every available kid on the field.
Prairie Grove coach Matt Chandler likewise emptied his bench for the second half, which was reduced from 40 to 20 minutes because of the large disparity on the scoreboard.
Prairie Grove football fans point out the field house is the same structure used 33 years ago when the Tigers competed in Class 2A. Players have to share lockers and the 100 or so kids in the program make do with two toilets.
The general feeling is the Tiger football program outgrew the facilities years ago.
One complaint posted on social media, summed up the issue this way, "I have been saying this same thing for the past 16 years. Seeing every other school improve their facilities and seeing ours is so discouraging. I know the hard work our coaching staff puts in and it is disappointing when we travel to the other facilities while scratching our heads wondering why we don't have this. Our football facilities are below where they should be, our baseball facilities aren't even on our campus."
Head football coach Danny Abshier continues to produce, even when his top two assistants left the program last season, the Tigers never skipped a beat, and the community wants to support football.
In 2022, their first season as a Class 5A football school, the Tigers went 7-4, claiming the No. 2 playoff seed from the 5A West with a 5-2 league record that included a dramatic 46-40 defeat of Harrison featured on the team's highlight reel.
Another observation posted on social media expressed empathy from a coach's wife at a school she didn't identify, stating her husband saw the need for facility upgrades since she first accompanied him to to a Prairie Grove football game 16 years ago.
"We really hope they improve soon. We took our current NWA job due to the coaching staff, facilities and community buy-in and support. PG kids deserve better. And they see all of these other school's facilities weekly. I would've never believed that they weren't going to add to the current staff while moving up a class! I hate that Coach Abshier and his staff have put in sooooo many hours and years to not get these improvements. Especially, with all of the money football brings in."
Explore Creative Solutions
The issue resurfaces annually, and its something the district needs to address through creative grant writing or exploring rumors that a local business might be willing to pump more than a quarter of a million dollars into the project.
When former Farmington softball coach Randy Osnes wanted to dramatically upgrade the Lady Cardinal home facilities, he organized a grass roots operation that involved dismantling bleachers from the former George Cole Field on the campus of the University of Arkansas, transporting them to Farmington, then using volunteers to reassemble those bleachers and create an accommodating atmosphere for fans to enjoy home games. The ballpark was renamed, "Randy Osnes Field," in his honor as he neared retirement at the close of the 2021 regular season.
Lincoln athletic director Deon Birkes spearheaded formation of the Wolfpack Foundation, a non-profit organization governed by board members with deep ties to the community. Birkes focused on putting the right people in place who would also have a passion about the mission, including those with expertise in business, legal issues and tax laws.
The foundation was introduced to the public on Aug. 19, 2016, with among its stated goals, creating an outdoor classroom, raising money for scholarships, an outdoor workout area for adults, finishing the high school track and other athletic facilities, and helping to purchase a turf surface for the football field.
They've been wildly successful in achieving those objectives.
According to Enterprise-Leader archives, Birkes envisioned Lincoln's Wolfpack Foundation as an entity comparable to the Razorback Foundation, operating from an initial focus to help Lincoln, yet encompassing a long-range vision to expand its support to northwest Arkansas.
In 2016, Birkes told the Enterprise-Leader, "We want to be very broad, that's why we have written our mission statement the way it is. Wouldn't it be great to have the Wolfpack Foundation help a Prairie Grove Tiger or a Farmington Cardinal?"
Mark Humphrey is a sports writer for the Enterprise-Leader. The opinions expressed are the author's own.
[former superintendent Reba Holmes email to parents and guardians, Feb. 28, 2022]