Santa Barbara City College athletes and coaches, sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic throughout much of 2020, got a year-end present wrapped in the holiday colors of green turf and Vaquero red: a new field at La Playa Stadium.
The college’s Board of Trustees has approved a $1.5 million project to replace the aging artificial turf at the 83-year-old, seaside stadium.
“This was huge news, without a doubt,” said coach Craig Moropoulos, whose football season was one of several fall sports recently canceled by the pandemic. “Especially coming at this time, it was very much-needed.
“I’m really excited about this. It’s a great way to finish off 2020.”
The turf at the 10,000-seat stadium receives heavy use from three of SBCC’s sports programs — football, soccer, and track and field — as well as from the college’s physical education classes. It’s also used by the Bishop Diego High football team, youth football, youth lacrosse, track clubs, the Special Olympics, and various non-sporting events.
SBCC’s athletic department estimated that the district lost between $70,000 to $90,000 this fall in revenue that it would have received from the stadium’s rental.
The $1.5 million price tag includes the repair of a drainage system that was damaged during the set-up and staging of a New York Philharmonic concert at the stadium in 2017.
The material is being purchased from FieldTurf USA and will be installed by Ohno Construction, both of which submitted the lowest bids. Architectural and engineering fees are also included in the final price tag.
The old turf, which was installed 11 years ago, is already three years past its warranty date.
“The surface has gotten pretty hard,” SBCC athletic director Rocco Constantino said. “The fibers were all deteriorated. You could just go around and see how little fiber there was left on the field.
“They’re supposed to be long blades of grass but they had become just thin pieces of thread. It also had become very uneven. There was so much wrong with it.”
Moropoulos said a “strange phenomenon with the fibers” added to an increasingly unsafe situation.
“The fibers that aren’t green — the red in the logo, and the yellow hash marks and yard lines and soccer lines — degenerated at a faster rate,” he said. “It made the whole surface uneven and a hazard.
“I asked the FieldTurf guys about it and they said the UV rays of the sun, for some reason, affect those colors and fibers faster than the green ones.”
The funding had been previously earmarked for the project but the trustees rejected the purchase order by a 4-3 vote last June. They cited the uncertain financial situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting that the matter be revisited in November or December.
Two freshmen from the football team, Santa Barbara High graduate Charlie Bittle and Temecula High alum Zach Cutka, both urged the trustees to approve the project during their Zoom meeting last Thursday. Bittle, a fifth-generation Santa Barbaran, said he’s often worked out at La Playa Stadium because of the reconstruction of the Dons’ Peabody Stadium.
“I wasn’t able to play at my high school stadium since my freshman year,” said Bittle, whose great-grandfather was Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Hall of Famer Chuck Sylvester. “I’d come home from workouts (at La Playa) with severe shin splints and aggravated joints.
“We are desperately in need of turf replacement.”
Cutka, who passed for 1,942 yards to lead his high school to last year’s CIF State 3AA Regional finals, said Temecula Valley replaced its turf field just before his junior year.
“The surface was very hard, similar to La Playa Stadium’s field,” he said. “Replacing it made it easier to make cuts, and we had fewer abrasions and bruises. It’s important to get this done simply for the safety of our students.”
ZhiNing Cui, commissioner of international student affairs at SBCC, also spoke in support of the turf replacement project.
SBCC’s Associated Student Government passed a resolution, 9-0, which affirmed its own support earlier this month. Student board of trustees representative Lilli McKinney said a petition seeking the board’s approval also got 1,200 student signatures in less than two weeks.
“Our students were key in helping to get it passed,” Constantino said. “And it wasn’t just student-athletes, but regular students who aren’t on any of the sports teams involved. I’m really glad to see that the students now have something to be happy about.”
The stadium has a long and colorful history. It was built in 1938 with WPA funds at a cost of $90,000. Santa Barbara State, which later became part of the University of California system, played football there until Harder Stadium was built in 1966.
The Easter Relays, which was started in 1932, moved to La Playa Stadium soon after its completion. It attracted some of the world’s top athletes before becoming strictly a college, high school and youth meet.
Dallas Long set the first of his seven world records in the shot put during the 1959 Easter Relays. Three years later, at the 1962 meet, John Uelses became the first pole vaulter to clear 16 feet at an outdoor meet. Barbara Ferrell matched another world record at La Playa Stadium when she ran a time of 11.1 in the 100 meters at the 1967 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
Constantino said the starting date for the installation of La Playa’s new field is still up in the air.
“We’re going to meet after the new year to figure that out,” he said. “The previous plan was to get started right after graduation, but I don’t know now if we’re having an in-person graduation or not.
“If there is flexibility to start earlier, I’d say it would mostly be sometime in mid or late April or early to mid May.”
SBCC’s football team and the other sports would need to find other places to train.
“That’s an acceptable inconvenience,” Moropoulos said with a chuckle.