WINTER GARDEN — There is a nightmare scenario looming over several sports teams at West Orange High School — most notably affecting the Warriors football team, a program fresh off its best season in history.
But this scenario would present adversity to West Orange’s programs in boys and girls soccer, boys and girls lacrosse and it also could affect a pair of area youth football programs.
At about eight years old, the synthetic turf playing surface at Raymond Screws Field is nearing its end, and, as the school scrambles to raise funds for a replacement, the possibility that the field could be deemed unplayable — without a replacement in the works — has never been more real.
That nightmare scenario could mean all off-site games for those sports for a prolonged period of time, something Warriors football coach Bob Head believes would be a significant setback for his program.
“It would be extremely tough,” he said. “Everybody talks about having a home-field advantage. Just being at Raymond Screws Field; it’s important. It’s important for your community.”
According to West Orange Athletic Director Adam Miller, the school is in the process of getting a second opinion on the status of the field and whether it will be playable for sports like boys and girls soccer that are in season now.
Miller and others associated with the school are canvassing local businesses and residents for donations to pay for a replacement and the school is also looking to sell the naming rights for the stadium. And, though donations have started to come, there is still a long way to go.
“We have over $60,000 (pledged) and need over $300,000,” Miller said. “The target date would be now — it’s only a matter of time before we are told we cannot use our current field, and a new field installment would take two months.”
And so, for a school where seemingly every athletic program seems to be on an upward trend, the calendar year has started off in a rather frantic manner.
HOW WE GOT HERE
For those unfamiliar with the history of West Orange’s turf field — the first turf field for a high school in Central Florida — the first question that comes to mind is likely, ‘How did this happen?’
The school and its athletic department decided in 2006 to purchase a synthetic turf field, with 60% of the costs to have been covered by five donors. According to Miller, when it was time for those donors to remit their portions of the payment, the nationwide economic downturn had begun and the donors backed out of their agreement. That left West Orange financially responsible for the installed turf field. The school was left to turn to the Orange County School Board to cover the remaining balance.
Because OCPS stepped in, the money that the school would otherwise be using to save for the replacement it now needs — the average life of such fields is generally eight years — is being used to repay the county.
“We have been making money on (field) rentals, and this money has been paying downtown back for when our donors eight years ago didn’t come through,” Miller said. “The money we are spending is the money we planned to save for the replacement.”
BENEFITS OF TURF
The turf field has been a welcome addition since it was installed eight years ago — especially financially.
Although expensive up front, the turf’s maintenance is cheap compared to that of natural grass fields. Other schools, including Lake Mary, Lake Brantley and The Master’s Academy, also have installed the synthetic surface at their respective stadiums.
“Maintenance of the field is easy,” Miller said. “We sweep every two weeks and cleanse with groom every year. The total cost is about $2,000, annually, for this; the cost to properly maintain a grass field annually is $40,000.”
From a coach’s standpoint, the field also provides some safety benefits.
“Overall, it’s safer due to the fact that it’s always a level surface,” Head said. “When it rains, there’s really no mud. It’s more consistent.”
Adding to the long-term financial benefits, that would otherwise help offset the upfront costs, is the ability the school has to rent out the field.
“Before the turf, West Orange only rented out the stadium field once, to a college band,” Miller said. “Now, we rent it out to two AUU youth football programs, an adult football program, bands, ROTC, Fields of Faith, middle-school soccer, lacrosse, all-star games, Nike camps, college recruiting camps, pro combines, and, most recently, the University of Missouri’s football team,” he said. “Basically, our community businesses surrounding Winter Garden and West Orange High School have all thrived because of our synthetic turf field. Our goal is to install a rubberized track and host something at West Orange every weekend, which brings families to the Garden every weekend.”
SENSE OF IDENTITY
Financial benefits aside, the field, in its eight years of existence, has added a great deal of pride both for the players who play on it and the fans who cheer them on.
“That’s what gives us our identity,” Head said. “People say, ‘Those are the guys that have the turf field,’ and I think people really enjoy playing on it.”
Principal Doug Sczinski, who was previously at Wekiva High School as an assistant principal, said athletics are imperative to a school’s culture and the combination of West Orange’s turf field and the school’s stadium-style bleachers makes the game experience in Winter Garden unique compared to most other schools in Central Florida.
“We’re so blessed to have the old-time stadium … the atmosphere is so much greater, and I think a lot of that is just facilities,” Sczinski said. “It’s not just West Orange’s stadium — it’s Winter Garden’s stadium. There’s so much pride in that school; from the academics to the athletics.”
NO SIMPLE ALTERNATIVE
If replacing the turf field seems a costly endeavor, it should be noted that returning to a natural playing surface may be even more so.
“I was verbally quoted that it would cost us close to $500,000 to reinstall a grass field with irrigation along with the removal of the synthetic turf foundation,” Miller said.
With no easy solution, if the money is not raised for a replacement field, then the school’s programs that utilize the field would be faced with options of playing all away games or perhaps using Walker Field in Winter Garden.
As the situation becomes dire and the school awaits final word on the playability of the field, it has become a top priority for more than just Miller and the athletic department.
“Now, with the situation we’re in, it’s become a violent shove into reality and this is a top priority,” Sczinski said.
CALLING ON THE COMMUNITY
In trying to raise the remaining $240,000 for the replacement turf field, West Orange is calling on the community.
“If everyone donated a small amount to our site we will reach our goal and our students will continue to have the ‘nicest’ field around,” Miller said.
In additions to canvassing Winter Garden and surrounding areas for donations, the school also is trying to sell naming rights for the stadium, as it recently did for the baseball field (now known as Heller Bros. Ballpark).
“Dennis Bondy, Bob Head, Jesse Marlo, Terry Riddle and Pam Gould are just a few names I would like to personally thank for their help in trying to find a stadium sponsor,” Miller said. “Our field is named after Raymond Screws, and we are looking for someone to buy our stadium’s naming rights.”
The city of Winter Garden and West Orange have a strong relationship, and administrators and coaches alike are optimistic that the community will rise to the occasion.
“I think they will,” Head said. “I think that the Winter Garden community — it’s a big family. I feel like there’s a whole lot of people that want to see West Orange High School do good things.”