Mount Royal's "Field of Dreams"

If you build it, they will come


Tim Cove, left, is facilities coordinator with Cougars Athletics and Recreation. Jamie Witham, right, is MRU's sports field and turf specialist with Mount Royal's grounds department.

A little-known fact is that Mount Royal's soccer teams play on the best outdoor field in the city when at home. Its excellent condition is what led it to become the home of Foothills FC during the Cougars' off-season.

Cougars Athletics and Recreation came to the rescue of Foothills FC this summer, whose Foothills Fieldhouse outdoor venue was originally slated to be the club's home turf. But with Calgary experiencing a late spring, the field conditions were not optimal for this high level of soccer. So, a request came in for a move to Mount Royal for all Foothills FC home games, and the reason was the outstanding state of MRU's home turf.

The Cougars' season is in full swing now, with Rori Enno of the men's team being named Canada West first star and U Sports Athlete of the Week for Sept. 5 to 8. The men trounced the Dinos for a 5-0 finish for their first game of the season.

It's taken 17 years to transform the field of nightmares into the field of dreams. When the new Recreation facility opened in 2002, the sports fields were the last to be built. As the old soccer fields had already been torn out, the Cougars soccer teams had to play at Broadview and practise at Glenmore Park.

During this time, the fields were covered in waist-deep weeds and brush.

"The only living creatures making regular use of the area were the coyotes as they hunted through the grasslands," says Tim Cove, facilities coordinator with Cougars Athletics and Recreation. Signs had to be posted to warn people that coyotes were in the area and to keep their dogs leashed. A few people lost their pets because they didn't heed the warning. "They went in and never came out," Cove says.

Once the brush was cleared out of the area, the coyotes had to find new accommodations. The ground itself had to be levelled and re-levelled to prepare it for sod. Unfortunately, the first sodding attempt was unsuccessful and had to be redone.

Cove remembers it as a roller coaster ride.

"When the stadium field was finally ready for the Cougars it still took a couple of seasons to get the bleachers installed for the spectators. It's been a long work in progress."

Years of growth

Photo of Jullien Ramirez competing on the soccer pitch.

Jullien Ramirez (23) vies for the ball during a Cougars Women's match on MRU's natural grass field.

Today, Mount Royal's beautiful and pristine outdoor, natural grass field and bleachers accommodates 250 spectators and has been highly praised by Foothills FC's Girls Academy director and coach, Troye Flannery. "It's an absolutely stunning venue at Mount Royal," Flannery says. "It's good for our supporters, and it's good for our players."

Flannery's club finished with a 7-1-1 record, making them Western Conference champions and earning them a spot in the United Women's Soccer (UWS) National Championship match, hosted at MRU in late July. The UWS Championship, a first-ever event not only for the city of Calgary but for Canada, resulted in Foothills FC falling 1-0 to LA Galaxy OC in the final.

"The staff, grounds crew, and overall experience was very positive. It was a perfect home for our needs," Flannery says. "We are grateful and appreciative of the opportunity to showcase our brand to the league while being at MRU."

A major reason Mount Royal is able to produce a top-quality pitch is due to the care and attention of Jamie Witham, sports field and turf specialist with Mount Royal's Grounds department. Witham works diligently to help maintain and enhance the quality of the turf areas across campus.

Initially Witham assumed it would be a daunting challenge to keep the stadium in playing condition throughout the spring and summer season, but with serious adjustments to the maintenance routine she and her team were able to support the addition of Foothills FC and address the challenges that came with more traffic on her gold-standard field.

For Witham, it's important to showcase the beauty of Mount Royal's campus to the outside community.

"MRU's grounds are the first experience that many of our visitors have when coming to campus," she says. "We strive to ensure that the campus is safe and welcoming from the curbs through to the indoor facilities. We at Grounds hope that the quality of the physical spaces on campus accurately reflect the quality of instruction and learning that occurs in the classroom."

Persistence pays off

Photo of Foothills FC's girls academy match.

Foothills FC Academy player tackling her opponent.

Witham and her staff worked tirelessly to accommodate the opportunity to provide a pitch for the homeless high-calibre soccer club. Rain and other challenges were plentiful throughout the Foothills FC season for Witham.

"Typically we would not keep the grass cut to game height throughout the month of June, but with the games occurring in June and July, the stadium field was maintained to the same degree as the practice fields beside it. With the unusually rainy weather, we cut more frequently and monitored the turf for signs of stress following each game."

Witham says several components made the Mount Royal stadium field appropriate for semi-professional soccer.

"The field was initially constructed to meet soccer pitch requirements. We maintain the turf and irrigation systems to ensure quality growth throughout the summer season, and there are structures in place to support play throughout the year including stadium seating, field lighting and support from Recreation for team change rooms," says Witham, who joined the Grounds team as a summer student in 2010 and has since completed her Red Seal in landscape horticulture though Olds College.

"To facilitate soccer use we also aerate the playing surface to alleviate compaction, and cut frequently to maintain the grass to an appropriate height for play."

Mount Royal was also chosen as a suitable substitute because unlike many City of Calgary fields, the campus offers natural grass as opposed to hybrid turf, with natural grass being the preference for a higher standard of soccer.

"I think that the difference really begins with growing living plants rather than maintaining a manufactured turf product. Grass definitely requires inputs to grow effectively, but with proper maintenance, it is a safe and versatile surface that can accommodate competitive sports and activities."

Cooperation between MRU Grounds and Cougar Athletics and Recreation is key to maintaining the quality of the stadium field. Witham works closely with all stakeholders to ensure that Grounds has time to maintain the turf and irrigation systems, Recreation schedules the field for an appropriate number of hours during the season, and the varsity teams have suitable fields to practise on so that they have options other than the stadium field.

"The close working relationship that we have developed with Cougars Athletics has allowed us to elevate the quality of the pitch over the last five years and is crucial to our continued success."

Upon completion of the Foothills FC season, maintenance has now begun for varsity use. A lot of work has gone into the upkeep of the stadium field and the MRU practice fields to get them to where they are today. There is constant monitoring to control who is on the field and when. Repairs are quickly taken care of so the integrity of the field is upheld. While not perfectly flat, the ball runs pretty well on the manicured natural turf.

"Teams like to play here because the facility is well maintained and we take pride in our work. The goal areas are grass covered (which wasn't the case some five years ago), and if I do say so myself, the field lines run pretty straight. It has taken a dedicated team to take care of the stadium field at MRU, home of the Cougars," says Cove.


It's Cougars soccer season now! Follow your teams here.


Sept. 10, 2019 — Jonathan Anderson

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