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Grounds crew game day: Behind-the-scenes of game day with the Ohio State grounds crew

River Wicker grooms the softball batting cages at Buckeye Field. Credit: Collin Ginnan | Lantern Reporter

The snow had just started to fall on the cold February morning when the carts began traveling across the athletic campus to lay down a layer of salt.

Later that day, a women’s lacrosse match would be played at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, and walking paths needed to be clear.

The softball team might not have a home game, but the batting cages needed to be cared for. And something had to be done about the new cryotherapy chambers blocking the path of the lacrosse nets.

It’s just another gameday at Ohio State University.

Behind the sports people love is a different kind of team. The grounds crew at Ohio State works year-round to ensure that the university’s athletic facilities are in peak condition for competition.

Monday’s team consisted of four student assistants: River Wicker, a recent graduate in sustainable plant systems; Nick Gauthier, a fourth-year in mechanical engineering; Nate Grady, a fourth-year in accounting; and Kacey Browning, a third-year in sustainable plant systems.

The noon shift began with a trip to Buckeye Field, the home of Ohio State softball. First up was to tend to the indoor batting cages. Embedded in the turf are rubber pellets that fill the playing surface. With repeated wear and tear such as pivoting in the batter’s box, the pellets are displaced, and divots are created. Once per week, the crew has to fill these spots to create a level surface.

“It just depends on softball and how much the [women] are out here,” Wicker said. “We do mounds every day though.”

Next up was Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. There, the team worked on cleaning up trash and dirt from the locker rooms to prepare for the impending women’s lacrosse season.

On the way to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the crew took a pit stop at the fences surrounding the football practice fields. The tarps covering the fence had taken a beating in the recent winter storms, and the team had to repair them. It was a quick job, but was just another addition to an ever-changing to-do list.

Once they reached the WHAC, it was finally time to prep the field for women’s lacrosse. For the indoor game, the traditional football field was painted with standard lacrosse lines two days prior. To set up for the match, the grounds crew worked in a rather choppy process — fast-paced and relentless at times, and slower with moments of anticipation while the crew waits for instructions.

The main objectives were to set up practice goals, game nets and protective screens for the sandwiched crowd, while also checking goals for tears and grooming the turf.

Of course, there are often hiccups along the way, such as unexplained wooden pallets, which held new cryotherapy chambers. Not exactly part of the typical description for a grounds crew, but these units were in the way of their setup process. So, the answer was naturally a forklift.

Keep in mind, this was only February. With baseball and softball on the road, the brunt of spring sports has yet to hit.

In February, the crew is caught between caring for winter facilities and preparing for the spring season.

When spring sports are in full stride, the process is even more hectic. The day of the 2019 football spring game, the grounds crew is also responsible for baseball, softball and women’s lacrosse.

“That day gets really interesting because of [the potential of] rain,” Brent Packer, Ohio State athletic grounds specialist, said. “We’re trying to keep softball dry. Meanwhile, we’re trying to get lacrosse set up and baseball — we’re communicating with coaches.”

With spring sports, a challenge for the grounds crew is getting the grass ready shortly after winter. To do this, the fields are painted green.

“The real reason we’re doing it is to make that surface darker, so it attracts more solar heat,” Brian Gimbel, superintendent of athletic grounds, said. “To heat the ground up underneath there and get the roots growing sooner than they would by nature.”

Bending to the will of scheduling and mother nature, Ohio State’s grounds crew’s work looks different day to day. In April, the crew may be working the fields for four sports each day. In July, it could be maintaining Bill Davis Stadium for external tournaments.

The job is always changing, and the crew is always on its toes.

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