COVINGTON, Ga. — When news broke that the Newton County Schools Board of Education approved the installation of turf at Sharp Stadium, one of Eastside head coach Jay Cawthon’s first thoughts when he heard the announcement might not be what some would guess.
“Now we can wear white pants at home,” Cawthon said. “They are so hard to keep clean from grass. You have to soak them even if you play on turf. But, with grass, it’s so hard to get [stains] out. I’m up here on Saturdays soaking them all day and then soaking them all day on Sundays.”
That won’t be an issue for the Eagles in 2023 at least as they will now play all of their games on a turf surface at home or on the road.
The BOE officially greenlighted the new playing surface in a 4-1 vote during the board’s Nov. 22 meeting, and all three Newton County football coaches were thrilled.
For Alcovy head coach Spencer Fortson, he’s noticed an excitement among his team with players constantly coming up saying, “Coach, we’re getting turf!”
The Tigers unknowingly prepared a year early for the playing surface change by wearing turf tape despite playing on grass. And, while it confused Fortson — who just concluded his first season as Alcovy’s head coach following his stint at Newton from 2009-2021 — wearing turf tape could’ve been a sign of things to come.
“I ask them all the time, ‘Why are you wearing turf tape on grass?’” Fortson said. “So, now they’re going to have a reason to wear the turf tape.”
‘A good first step’
All three coaches, including Newton’s head coach Camiel Grant Jr., donned smiles when asked how they felt about turf coming to Sharp Stadium. But they all channeled their excitement through one consensus statement: “It’s a good first step.”
In fact, Grant elaborated more on what installing turf really means for the future of Sharp Stadium amenities.
“It’s a good first step in terms of recognizing that a [grass] field can’t continue holding up to three schools playing on it,” Grant said. “And [NCSS] needed to do something. I think it means there’s some sort of awareness there.”
Cawthon and Grant expressed their concern about the state of Sharp Stadium via a June 8, 2022 article in The Covington News before discussions of turf were progressing with the Board.
Grant specifically stated his desire for him, Cawthon and Fortson, as well as each schools’ athletic directors, to simply “be a part of those conversations.”
Then, one day in mid-August, Grant’s wishes came true.
All three coaches received an email from NCSS facilities manager Scott Rains saying that the school system was going to shop around local schools who already have turf. Fortson shared that the football coaches, athletic directors and NCSS athletic director Dr. Ashante Everett met with Rains at the county office to get a game plan together.
After that meeting, all coaches and athletic directors joined Rains to tour Archer and South Gwinnett high schools’ turf football fields. Representatives of each school discussed the ins and outs of their turf fields as part of the tour.
Being on that trip was educational for Fortson.
“Visiting those schools gave us a better understanding of the different types of turf fields,” Fortson said. “People just think turf, but there are different types of turf. We were able to let Scott Rains and Dr. Everett know what field we felt like would be more productive for our programs. And they listened, and we went with it.”
Included on that trip was a representative from Sports Turf Company, the company that will install Sharp Stadium’s turf. Sports Turf Company also installed playing surfaces at all the schools the coaches visited.
South Gwinnett’s turf was finished in 2019 while Archer’s turf installation is slated for Feb. 2022.
Taking part of the tour and having input sent a stronger message to Grant than just installing the turf itself.
“We’re willing to have collective conversations about what we can do as an entire school system athletically,” Grant said. “The way this came about signals that maybe we’re starting to be willing to have conversations.”
Cawthon was in favor of turf from the get go, too, because of its durability.
“There’s a 10-year warranty on [the turf] and, if we take care of it, it could last longer,” Cawthon said. “And it’s going to expand to all sports and activities that can be done on that field.”
New possibilities at Sharp
Grant agreed with Cawthon’s line of thought concerning what additional events could be hosted on the new surface. Not only that, but Grant believes the renovations could make Sharp Stadium more attractive to others.
“You’re going to get a lot of attention and a lot of requests to be able to get on that turf,” Grant said. “We have the opportunity to make a splash with it. And for youth, it tells them that Newton County is progressive in trying to move forward and is serious about what we're doing in athletics.”
Grant also said that the new turf surface should cut costs on field maintenance during the year, which could allow more money to be allocated toward other renovations.
“What it costs to maintain grass and keep it playable for three schools, I think we’re going to save some money,” Grant said. “That could possibly mean you could see other improvements coming down the line because of money you save on field maintenance.”
Another recent development concerning Sharp renovations came out of the Board’s Oct. 25 meeting when members voted to install LED lights.
While coaches recognized that lights won’t help win or lose a game, the updated lights could go a long way with enhancing fans’ experience.
In fact, Fortson recalled his introduction to LED lights this past season at Morrow High School.
“They scored a touchdown and the lights went out,” Fortson said. “And I said, ‘dang, did the power go out?’ But the lights started blinking and I said, ‘Man, that is cool.’ Having LED lights out there will get the fans more involved, and we can do different things with them.”
Other renovations on coaches list
Though all three local coaches were delighted when they heard the news about turf and LED lights coming to Sharp, they all recognized other areas they would like to see touched up in the facility.
Extending parking, the seating capacity, upgrading the press box, making the area designated for officials larger and locker room maintenance were among the projects listed by each coach.
“We’re still talking about a facility that is 66 years old,” Grant said. “There are definitely some other things that need to be done. I believe that putting turf there that now decision makers are aware of coming in and working on Sharp. Does that one thing fix all the issues? No.”
Nevertheless, all coaches are extra excited to see the turf and LED light projects begin sometime this month. But they’re on the edge of their seats to get their teams on the field for regular season play in August 2023.
And, they won’t have to answer the “Why isn’t this field turf” question from opposing coaches anymore.
“Everybody we played this year at home, that’s the first thing I told [the opposing coaches],” Cawthon said. “And they were all like, ‘It’s about time.’ So, now we’ll just have to find other things to talk about in the pregame.”