A facelift for the Ken Wilson Field

As we often do, one day last fall my Dad and I strolled up to the Ken Wilson Field to catch some Saranac Lake football action. Ken Wilson was a successful football coach in the late 1920s. There is something wonderfully nostalgic that my father played on that field, as did my brother and hundreds of other men who played, coached and volunteered on that field. No less important were hundreds of cheerleaders and Saranac Lake High School band members who cheered and marched on that field, as well as the thousands of fans in attendance. When you drive down LaPan Highway, your eye is drawn to the Ken Wilson Field, yet this field needs a facelift, one that creates a safe, spectator-friendly venue for student-athletes and fans alike. Our district needs a multi-use-turf field for soccer, lacrosse and football, and Ken Wilson Field is just the place.

A Redskin from 1949 to 1952, playing football, alpine skiing and running track, my dad often talks about what sports were like back in the no-pain, no-gain era. He recollects star players like Dud Branch and Jim “Big Red” Duprey. As the leaves crunched around our feet and the sound of the game grew near, he explained that football back then meant everyone played offense and defense, and drinking water was not allowed. No water at all — just slosh it around, spit it out, dentist style.

“We wore soft helmets, and we were pretty banged up most of the time,” he said. “The center of the field was mud; I have no idea how they got our uniforms clean.”

My father was cheered on by his father, and he watched his four children participate in 10 years of athletics at SLHS. Now he and my mother are right there with many other grandparents, parents, alumni and friends supporting the current generation, on the same fields with the same issues.

Field conditions have not changed much since 1952. Ken Wilson Field has the same mud zone. The soccer field at the track grows ponds, causing players to slosh through yards of water and the ball to abruptly stop. At Schroeter’s Field, the natural runoff from the hill creates recurring uneven playing surfaces. The same puddles, low spots and slippery zones that plagued us in the ’80s are still tripping up players today. I broke my ankle during a sectional game my junior year slipping on a low spot at Schroeter’s. I can bring you there; the menacing depression is alive and well.

The field conditions are not a result of lack of effort. The Saranac Lake Middle and High School grounds crew do their best to keep the practice and game fields in good condition. However, our northern climate, with winter lasting into April and increasing spring precipitation, makes this a losing battle. Repeat this: The battle will be lost year after year, as the casualties continue. Yes, of course, there is always risk in athletics, but current fields are unable to repel the water correctly, causing an increase in injuries. The high-use areas — the goal line and inside the 18-yard box, inside the lacrosse crease and the center of the football field — are depleted after only a few home games. We need sound playing surfaces to decrease injuries for our student-athletes and guests.

Another consideration is the dangerous parking situation for home games at Schroeter’s field. Cars lined on both sides of Ampersand Avenue is an unsafe situation. Although this is a school field, the speed of traffic is not limited to 25 miles per hour. Cars run the gauntlet at excessive speeds, with very little passable space. The lack of parking limits the attendance for spectators. Guests who travel to this venue have access to only a porta-potty, no running water or adequate seating. We want Saranac Lake to host our competitions with pride and model the appropriate way our spectators, both home and visiting, are treated.

A multi-use turf facility located at the Ken Wilson Field would be ideal with the existing infrastructure of bleachers, restrooms, scoreboard, fencing and a PA system. Turf is made of synthetic fibers, and safe, non-toxic filler is now available. A level turf field would repel water, eliminating puddles and mud. Less water means fewer injuries. Further, although the initial cost of a turf field seems great, the operational expenses of mowing, seeding and painting lines on multiple fields several times a season would be greatly reduced. The parking situation is much safer, with designated areas on South Hope Street and the middle school parking lots nearby.

The local geese population would be less attracted to a turf field, which has been greatly discussed in the past. Geese will naturally prefer grass, where they can feed off small insects.

A rich history of talented student-athletes, dedicated coaches and supportive alumni continue to create a thriving sport culture in the Saranac Lake Central School District. Saranac Lake has successfully fundraised ski lodges at Mount Pisgah and Dewey Mountain, which bring pride to our community. A multi-use field that reduces athletic injuries and creates a safer environment for spectators is just another needed upgrade for our town, and a way for our community and alumni to show that we are committed to our current and future student-athletes. Although we respect and admire the alumni of SLHS, like our friend Dud Branch who earned five varsity letters in one year, that does not mean our facilities need to live in the past.

Amy Cheney-Seymour lives in Vermontville.