Photo: The DU grounds crew spent long hours preparing for the opening of fall sports. (L to R) Landscape Manager Doug Rightmire, Horticulture Technician Todd Mickelson, Irrigation Technician Paul Rightmire, Groundskeeper John Maes and seasonal support Jacob Hartman.
As DU fall sports began several weeks ago, one DU team was in mid-season form. The DU grounds crew was working overtime to deliver some of the best practice and game venues in Division I Athletics. If you attend soccer games at CIBER Field, lacrosse games at Peter Barton Stadium, or play intramural athletics on Diana Wendt Sports Field, you know that the Pioneer facilities and grounds are impeccably maintained.
The grounds crew plays a vital role in creating an excellent outdoor atmosphere and superior playing surfaces for Denver’s teams.
Several years ago, soccer star Sam Hamilton, now in the MLS, gave the grounds keepers his Summit League championship medal when he left the field – that tells you just how DU athletes feel about this crew’s dedication and professionalism.
The DU soccer team has even been known to take a piece of DU turf with them on the road for good luck. And, on the road, it’s not uncommon to have DU athletes brag about the quality of their home field compared to their rival’s turf.
At DU, the grounds crew routinely battles drought, abnormal wear and tear, and weather extremes. Plus, throw in some unexpected surprises like a snow storm before a lacrosse game, flooding and torrential rains before soccer matches, and replacing damaged turf before games and you have a job that is impacted by uncontrollable events. And the expectation is always the same – a playing surface that is a green and flawless – and they deliver.
It takes a small army to maintain the playing fields and landscaping between Asbury and Buchtel Boulevard. Irrigation, horticulture, landscaping, groundskeepers, and custodial staff all work together to create a top notch game-day environment for coaches, players, and fans.
With year-round activity at the complex, landscape manager Doug Rightmire and his team conduct routine maintenance such as snow removal (there are no in-field heating systems so most snow removal is done by hand), seeding and planting, watering, painting fields (800 gallons of paint a year), and working on the facility’s infrastructure. In addition to these routine duties, the crew recently had to replace turf in front of the soccer goal mouths and replant turf in several other areas as the wear and tear has taken its toll over the last several years – all this with practices and games going on at the same time.
“As a crew, we strive to give our athletes the very best footing and environment that is physically possible,” said Rightmire. “I compliment my crew – they are very dedicated.”
The biggest challenge faced by horticulturist Todd Mickelson? “High heat is the biggest challenge” to maintain healthy turf in Denver. “We have to move quick…and have a flexible schedule”. Add the sandy subsurface that heats up with the blistering mile high sunshine and the turf requires nearly constant attention.
The sand-based natural turf field at CIBER Field (100,000 sq ft in size) gets used by many teams and groups (soccer practice, summer PASS camp, Rugby), keeping horticulturist Mickelson and his team busy maintaining one of the best fields in metro Denver – and that includes Sports Authority Field at Mile High (or whatever they’re calling it these days). The sand base (30 tons of sand are added every season) does not retain nutrients so the turf requires constant seeding, water, and granulated and liquid fertilization, divot replacement and cutting (1″ height/in-season).
Think the artificial surfaces at Diane Wendt Sports Field and Peter Barton Stadium require less maintenance and care than CIBER’s natural turf? Think again. It takes just as much time and effort to maintain artificial turf as the real thing. From dragging the surface to keep the nap up to removing crumb (rubber pellets), adding crumb rubber, and cleaning and picking-up debris, the artificial turf can be especially tricky to maintain especially with a build-up of frozen snow and ice.
Taking care of the outdoor athletic complex is not a 9-5 job and requires year-round attention, often seven days a week. It demands a flexible schedule by crew members who must also schedule their tasks around team practices and games.
What do coaches think of the ground crew? Visiting coaches and players often make a point to compliment the crew on their work. And DU’s coaches? In order for his men’s team to better understand the field crew’s work, DU soccer head coach Jamie Franks has had his team work with the crew and replace divots. Last season, Rodney Billups had his team out on the CIBER Field with buckets of sand. Working on the field lets the players get to know the field crew better and understand some of the work that goes behind maintaining their extraordinary home field.
A professional playing surface at CIBER Field is also seen by DU coaches as a recruiting benefit. Coaches report that potential recruits who visit Denver during the summer months often comment about the lush, green playing surface.
What would the grounds crew change if they could? They would add heating coils to the extremely large west-facing steps out of Magness Arena to remove ice and add heating coils under the field at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium as the snow has to be tediously removed by hand before it freezes. But, otherwise, they have all the resources they need to keep the area north of Asbury safe, clean, and beautiful.
According to Mickelson, back-to-back games and playoff games that are televised will often mean that the crew is working extra hours on weekends and evenings. Their goal is to provide perfect footing and a smooth playing surface. But, the aesthetics are equally important and extend beyond the turf to include hedges and the natural grass bordering the field.
Before and after soccer games, it is not unusual to see the ground crew, dressed in Denver Pioneer letter jackets, greet the players as they exit the northeast corner of the field. Last season they become a part of the game-day atmosphere as their hard work was showcased on ESPN along with DU’s nationally ranked men’s soccer team.
And the pride and teamwork extend beyond the turf – they are just as excited as the fans when the Pioneers leave the field with a ‘W’. Their support for DU athletics does not end at the Ritchie Center doors. They’re big fans of DU’s indoor sports too.