Montgomery Blair High School’s stadium turf field is 76 yards wide, according to girls soccer coach Bob Gibb, with the lines permanently painted in the surface.
Before the new field was finished, however, the Blazers played at a nearby park and coaches painted the natural grass field on game day.
“I remember back [before 1998] when I was also coaching boys soccer, we were playing [Walt] Whitman and I lined that field [55 yards] wide and that was the minimum [according to state rules],” Gibb said. “[Whitman coach] Dave Green came up and was upset and was like, ‘You could’ve lined it all the way out to here.’ But I did it on purpose because it gave us an advantage. We ended up winning in overtime.”
What if the dimensions of a basketball court changed from game to game, or if the basket heights differed at each gym?
Would tennis players struggle to keep the ball within the white lines if the lines were shifted from match to match, or there was no regulation height for the net?
Various field sizes and surfaces are something soccer, field hockey and lacrosse players in Montgomery County cope with on a daily basis.
It gives the term “home field advantage” a whole new meaning as visiting teams must prepare for two opponents: their physical adversaries and the playing surface.
“On a grass surface that’s not cut properly, it definitely slows the game down. [Poorer] surfaces require the kids to adjust their skills and their speed to be more successful with what they have,” longtime Poolesville field hockey coach Regina Grubb said.
Though coaches agreed making adjustments is an important part of sport, the differences also hinder the development of young athletes. Beyond that, safety issues can arise on an uneven playing surface.
The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association requires high school soccer fields be at least 110 yards long and 55 yards wide.
The sometimes 20-yard discrepancy in width requires a major adjustment, not only tactically, but also in fitness level.
The width of a lacrosse field may vary from a little more than 53 to 60 yards while the attack area can be from 35 to 40 yards, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Field Hockey also adheres to NFHS regulations. Grubb said county fields are 100 yards long and 60 yards wide, but the length of grass and a bumpy terrain can have a major impact on the game. It can also be a safety hazard as the ball will have a tendency to fly off uneven ground.
Fields at older schools, such as Damascus (established in 1950), were likely built with only football in mind and tend to be more narrow.
Synthetic turf fields seem to be the way of the future. Four Montgomery County public schools already have them: Blair, Richard Montgomery, Walter Johnson and Gaithersburg.
The smooth surfaces speed up play and are more durable than grass, allowing schools to use the fields more frequently for practices and games without them losing condition.
“As we are refurbishing schools, we have been installing turf as part of that refurbishment,” MCPS Director of System-wide Athletics William “Duke” Beattie said. “There are over 100 contests a year on the stadium field and in a condensed amount of time, fall and spring. In between that are two unforgiving seasons, making it hard for the field to regenerate.”
Beattie added that artificial fields create a consistent and level surface. He also said the surface would be safer to athletes, cause fewer game cancellations, create an additional practice facility and would help keep student-athletes on campus during training, an issue Beattie said he feels strongly about.
Beattie said installation of artificial grass eliminates the annual cost of field maintenance — the initial installation of a turf field is approximately $1 million — something school budgets cannot afford.
Schools do the best they can with their resources to maintain their fields, Beattie said. It would take a source of income beyond the booster club to make even make artificial turf a possibility.
Walter Johnson shares ownership of its new turf field with the Bethesda Soccer Club.
“It would be nice if everyone had a good surface to play on, but that’s not a reality,” Bethesda-Chevy Chase girls soccer coach Rob Kurtz said. “So it’s just how quickly on the fly can we adjust to a situation. The better teams adjust quicker.”