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Dome-field advantage

New Anchorage facility leaves area athletes out in wet and cold

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2008

 

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  Skyview High School's track and field team runs on Ski Hill Road on Friday. The school's track, below right, is about half covered by ice and standing water. Photo by M. Scott Moon

The Chugach Mountains provide a backdrop for The Dome, a massive air-supported indoor sports facility in south Anchorage. The building has opened many new possibilities for Anchorage athletes.

Running in the hallways is prohibited in just about every school throughout the country.

But there's an exception to every rule. In this case, that deviation takes place on the Kenai Peninsula.

And not by choice.

 

Skyview High School's soccer field on Friday was little more than a large puddle in a cleared area of snow.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The Kenai Central track and field team, as in years past, has been unable to run on a track thus far this season. That could change this week, though, when the layer of snow blanketing its surface finally melts.

In the meantime, the Kardinals, exhibiting their creative side, have been making ends meet any way possible.

 

Kenai track team members pass vending machines during an indoor workout at the school last week.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Aside from sharing gym time a couple days a week and working out in the weight room, they've been darting through the school hallways past the vending machines.

"We try to avoid the hallway tile stuff because it's hard on your legs and joints," coach Tim Sandahl explained. "Kids complain about shinsplints."

 

Skyview High School's track and field team runs on Ski Hill Road on Friday. The school's track, below right, is about half covered by ice and standing water.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

When they're fortunate enough, they run on the streets. But that, too, isn't ideal.

"Telephone pole to telephone pole, basically," Sandahl said. "We haven't been able to practice true handoffs or starts. We haven't done anything like that."

These forced measures have contributed to local squads hanging with tougher competition in the past, most recently the Kenai boys, who placed second at state last year.

 

Soccer players drill in the gym at Kenai Central last week. Their field is still covered in snow.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

But after the last fall's opening of Anchorage's new 174,290-square-foot, fully air-supported indoor sports facility dubbed The Dome, featuring the only six-lane, 400-meter indoor track in North America, only time will tell how wide the gap of competition between city schools and everyone else may get.

"You'll never reach your potential indoors," Sandahl said. "Running on really super hard pavement on roads is not good for your bodies, either.

"You get to see how quick you are," he added. "You really don't get to see how fast you are."

Dome, sweet Dome

 

Soccer players drill in the gym at Kenai Central last week. Their field is still covered in snow.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Opened on Oct. 1, 2007, The Dome is the largest fully-air supported structure of its kind in North America, perhaps even the world, and features the only full-sized indoor soccer pitch in the state, up to eight soccer practice fields, two collegiate-sized softball fields, a regulation size football field, a baseball diamond, batting cages and more.

It was the 2002 brainchild of Gene Desjarlais, a 51-year old Anchorage subcontractor and member of ChangePoint, a 5,000-member nondenominational Christian church in Anchorage.

"My daughters were playing quite a few different sports, soccer and basketball, and I went to basketball practice ... and they didn't have gym space," Desjarlais said, adding that soccer teams also were using the gym. "To get the soccer teams on a turf field, not only does it help the soccer teams because they're playing on the correct surface, it will open up the gym space for basketball and volleyball. The correct sports were inside on a gym floor."

Amidst purchasing land occupied by the former Alaska Seafood International plant, ChangePoint designated a 12-acre section of property for the $15 million structure and sold the $5 million property to Anchorage Sportsplex Inc., a nonprofit organization created by Desjarlais, for a mere $1.2 million.

"ChangePoint helped immensely," Desjarlais said. "Without them we wouldn't have been able to do it."

Desjarlais, a resident of Anchorage for 25 years, and the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority then raised the necessary funds by selling tax-exempt conduit bonds.

"ChangePoint didn't give specific funds to the building of the dome. However, they kind of guaranteed the funds, guaranteed the capital," said Doug Ketterer, general manager of The Dome, which is managed by ChangePoint. "I believe the money for the building of The Dome came from bonds, and investors invested in those.

"They organized the funds but did not supply it out of the church," he added of ChangePoint. "They provided the financial backup."

Ketterer said the need for such a structure in Anchorage was obvious, despite the already existing Cellular One Sports Center, which also houses an indoor soccer turf field.

"They wanted to meet the needs of the community," he explained. "The needs of athletes who were just shut out through the cold, dark months of winter and fall. To provide a place where Alaskan athletes can play year round."

The rest is history.

Constructed in roughly 10 months on four acres of land near Minnesota Drive and Raspberry Road, the mammoth 601-foot-long, 290-foot-wide, 87.5-foot-tall, snow-white facility is the current home of practices for the University of Alaska Anchorage track teams, and practices and games for a plethora of Anchorage high school track and soccer squads. The Dome also serves Cook Inlet, Anchorage Youth and Alaska Youth Soccer Clubs, which signed contracts last year guaranteeing a certain amount of rented time over a five-year period.

"To see the place packed and jamming and parents and other spectators cheering on these players in the middle of winter, when there's a blizzard outside and it's as dark as night at 6 p.m., it's pretty amazing," Ketterer said. "It gets you excited. That's for sure."

Open for business

It's doors aren't exactly closed to peninsula residents.

In fact, contrary to popular opinion, there is plenty of open bubble time to go around.

"It's not booked solid," Ketterer said.

The problem, for peninsula teams at least, lies in the pricing.

At $380 an hour for the soccer turf and $150 an hour for renting the track, the cost of bussing local teams to The Dome for practice is undeniably and unfortunately unfeasible.

"It may be advantageous from a competitive standpoint," said Melody Douglas, the chief financial officer for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. "But I think like everything else on the Kenai Peninsula, it comes down to money, which is a sad state of affairs from my opinion."

The Benjamins down here aren't able to flow quite as freely as they do up north.

The Anchorage School District has allocated $170,000 for soccer and track teams from its eight schools Bartlett, Dimond, Chugiak, Eagle River, Service, East, West and South to practice and compete in games or meets in the comfortable and consistent 60-degree temperature The Dome offers.

Todd Arndt, supervisor of high school education for the Anchorage School District, said its not uncommon for his district to allot funds for swimming pools and ice time during other seasons. In this instance, he said it was out of necessity.

"At the start of the season we didn't have adequate facilities to start track or soccer because of the weather," he explained. "We're very appreciative that this project has been finished and that we're able to be in there. It's just been a great opportunity for our boys and girls soccer and boys and girls track to be able to start the season on time."

During spring break, March 10 to 14, the Anchorage School District purchased a block of dome time every day from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. for its teams to practice. It didn't end there. They've currently reserved 2:30 to 7 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays through May 16, although Arndt said track teams will begin running outdoors on Saturday.

Roughly 160 road miles south, central peninsula athletes are relegated to gyms, hallways and streets.

"It definitely gives them an advantage this early in the season," said Skyview track coach Rob Sparks, whose sprinters have been running on rubber runways in school hallways and whose distance runners have been sloshing through muddy slop. "The kids will stay healthier. If they do get in that early, they're going to have a lot less of those early season injuries. ... That kind of helps with the long run.

"It's that early part of the year where you've got to get the meat and potatoes of your workout in so you can kind of maintain the rest of the season."

There lies another bubble bonus.

The Bartlett and Chugiak boys soccer teams battled under The Dome on March 28 while their respective girls teams opened their regular seasons the following day. Some Anchorage track teams even participated in a meet on March 22.

"Those schools that do get access to it, it's going to help a lot," Sparks said.

The first peninsula soccer game isn't until Friday, roughly two weeks after some city schools began play, when the Skyview boys and Lumen Christi tangle on the Anchorage Football Stadium turf and then play again on Saturday morning. Most of the local track teams will get their first taste of The Dome when they head to an indoor meet that same day. But the Kenai boys and girls soccer squads don't open their seasons until April 15 at Grace Christian. Homer then kicks off against Grace on April 19, Soldotna opens on April 22, also against the Grizzlies, and Nikiski finally heads to Grace on April 24.

SoHi boys soccer coach Jeff Siemers said in his seven years at the helm, his team has never stepped foot outside prior to its first game, which typically takes place around the third week of April at the Anchorage Football Stadium.

"I do in the sense that they're able to practice on a full field as opposed to inside a gym," Siemers said of Anchorage teams having a competitive advantage. "The space that The Dome creates gives a more realistic feel of the game, playing in competitions on a full field with 11 players as opposed to small, quick touch indoors with six players."

"Basically, it's another step forward for Anchorage and we're still stagnant," said Skyview boys soccer coach Dave Carpenter, who needs to pump is pitch clean of the lake that's currently engulfing it. "Another advantage goes that way."

Thinking outside the bubble

Schools outside Anchorage are laboring through similar struggles.

West Valley, North Pole and Lathrop, all located around Fairbanks, are benefiting from warmer temperatures this time of year, yet still have most teams practicing indoors. Their soccer games don't begin until the end of the month while track season opens this week.

Schools in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough have it a little better. But not necessarily easier.

Wasilla track and field coach Gary Howell said his team does quite a bit of work indoors before heading outside, which the Warriors were lucky enough to do on March 17.

"This year we were really fortunate our track was cleared with the exception of 100 meters," he said. "That's totally abnormal. We're usually shoveling snow just to get out there."

The Valley, too, has an indoor sports facility, the Wasilla Multi-Use Sports Complex, a 102,000 square foot building which opened in March 2004 and houses an NHL-size ice arena, indoor turf and a shorter track.

With only two lanes, though, Howell said the track is too small for his team to practice on, as it would take approximately six laps to complete a mile.

"To try and fit 60 kids in there would be a nightmare," he said.

Bussing more than an hour to The Dome isn't an option for them, either.

"There's no way our program could afford to rent the facility for any amount of time," Howell said. "We're just way too limited."

Valley soccer teams, on the other hand, have taken full advantage of their local facility while also working outdoors.

The Palmer boys and girls soccer teams practiced on the Wasilla Multi-Use Sports Complex turf on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, for an hour and a half each day. The Houston and Colony boys and girls teams were scheduled to take the field for the same amount of time this past Friday, at $80 to $110 an hour, according to a representative at the complex. The Wasilla baseball team also utilizes the facility, she said.

Then there's Juneau-Douglas High School.

Secluded in Southeast, Juneau's recent success has little to do with bubbles or sunshine.

Alternating second-place finishes and state championships from 2000-03, the Crimson Bears boys soccer team, with the assistance of coach Gary Lehnhart, in his 16th year at the helm, have traveled to the Lower 48 every year since 1995-96 to compete against some of the top teams Washington has to offer.

The Crimson Bears are currently playing four games in Spokane, where Lehnhart played and later coached.

"It's huge. It's big for a couple of reasons. One, our kids dream about this from when they're young kids, about the time they're going to get to go to Spokane," he said. "We go down here, like (Thursday), we'll be hard-pressed to find a team in the state of Alaska that's as good as the one we played (Thursday).

"It's a little reminder that there's some good soccer in places other than, in our case Juneau, or Anchorage."

They take that notion one step further by bringing Lower 48 teams into Alaska to play on their field, which they usually have to shovel to make playable.

Last year, the Crimson Bears took on a state championship team from Wyoming. The year before that, they met Bellermine Preparatory School from Tacoma, and the results weren't exactly pretty.

"They were amazing. They took it to us pretty good," Lehnhart said. "It was the worst beating I've taken as a coach."

But it helped his players improve, which is the primary focus of these matches.

"To get a chance to play Lower 48 teams that are really good, really sets us apart early in the year," he said. "When you play against yourselves so much throughout the winter and you play against your JVs day in and day out, you maybe start thinking that you're a little better than you really are."

Making all of these trips possible is the furious fundraising efforts exerted by the athletes.

Forced to fly to every game within the state, let alone to the Lower 48, the Juneau boys and girls soccer programs raise $100,000 a year for expenses, which also aids outside teams in traveling to the Last Frontier.

"That's a big undertaking. That's a part of our success that we have," Lehnhart said. "Our kids have to put in a lot of effort to do this. We basically do whatever in order to pay for this."

Also contributing to the advances of the Crimson Bears program is the Thunder Mountain soccer camp run each summer with close to 500 participants, most of whom reside in the Juneau area.

"It's raised the level of soccer in Juneau a lot," Lehnhart said. "We've gotten better and better each year."

And they're only going to keep climbing higher.

Scheduled to open March 1 prior to being delayed, a new aluminum structure is being completed in Juneau and will be large enough for an 80-yard indoor soccer field, also to be used for baseball.

"I feel for the peninsula," Lehnhart said. "I know what it's like to train on a gym floor. There's only so much you can do inside to get ready for an outdoor season."

The indoor facility, made possible by the fervent charge of soccer players' parents who spearheaded the operation, will be managed by the organization which runs Eaglecrest Ski Area, which is owned by the city of Juneau.

And while gym time was free, it's difficult to pass on a nearly full-sized indoor soccer pitch when the snow is swirling outside.

"We're going to be happy to have this facility," Lehnhart said. "Now, it's going to come with a cost. More fundraising I'm sure, which no one is looking forward to."

Teams on the peninsula would take anything they can get.

As local soccer squads are struggling to share gym time with other teams, track teams are doing whatever possible to get prepared for the season.

Sandahl said his squad can set up only three hurdles at a time in the hallway. Of course, hurdlers don't get the assistance of a starting block.

"That'd be awesome to be able to do all 10, or all eight in the 300 hurdles," he said of Anchorage teams. "Turns three and four on our track are entirely covered by six to eight inches of snow, so we can't work at all."

And when they're finally able to compete in an actual meet, which they'll do on Friday at The Dome, it's not going to be easy.

"Formwise we'll be right there. I think our kids have always shown really good form," he said. "You really have to be in shape. Until you run (hurdles) the first time, it can knock the wind out of you, that's for sure."

Throwing in the parking lot, his team hasn't even thought about jumping yet. At The Dome, teams are most likely taking advantage of the jumping pits as well as the discus and shot put rings.

"We were in the same boat last year as everybody," Sandahl said. "We'll see if it has an effect because they did have an early start."

Kenai, therefore, is treating this first meet like a practice, as the Kardinals may not compete again for a couple of weeks if the snow doesn't clear.

"I love it that we're into it," Sandahl said. "It's going to be special running in that temperature. Give me a break. It's going to be great. We're not going to have to worry as much about injuries and being cold.

"Oh, wow," he added when informed of the comfy 60-degree temp. "(Tuesday) we were all giddy because it was 43."

Bubble buoy

It may be difficult to gage this season.

Five years down the road, though, Anchorage soccer and track teams could be vastly superior to their counterparts in other areas of the state.

"Traditionally Region III, when it comes down to state, we've been very competitive with the Anchorage schools. It will be hard to tell here at the beginning," Sparks said. "$150 an hour for the track is a pretty darn good deal. Absolutely.

"Early on I think they're going to have the advantage," he added, "but by the end we're going to have to see if it paid off that much."

Having placed fourth at the state tournament last season, the highest finish from a peninsula boys soccer team since Skyview finished third in 2004, Siemers believes it's difficult to predict the future, but said at least four of his players have already played comp soccer in the bubble.

He's even played there three times himself and already sees the benefits.

"I appreciate the investment in the local community that it provides," Siemers said. "It's great. Good surface. Plenty of space. And the ability to play a full field in the winter in Alaska, it's hard to put a price on that."

A look at recent history, which openly displays Anchorage's dominance between the lines, doesn't bode well for the future of peninsula teams.

The South boys have claimed three consecutive Class 4A state crowns with Service winning in 2004. Only two peninsula boys teams (SoHi, Skyview) have cracked the top four, Juneau-Douglas managed second-place finishes three times and third place once and Colony is the only other non-Anchorage school to finish in the top four, placing second in 2005 and fourth in 2006.

There's even less parity on the Class 4A girls side, as only six non-Anchorage schools have placed in the top four over the last four years, with Juneau winning in 2004, placing second in 2006 and third in 2005 and 2007.

Howell only sees the competitive disadvantage getting worse.

"It's going to be disparaging. It's going to be horrible," he said. "They already dominate on numbers and facilities and now they have the opportunity to train year-round.

"It would be awesome if we could find some private funding for someone to put a dome out here," he added, pointing out that Anchorage athletes now have two indoor soccer facilities at their disposal. "To me, it's a little bit of heartburn."

Howell even cited the recently installed football turf in Barrow, although privately funded, as another facility outside the reach of Region III squads.

"To me, it's really unfortunate," he said. "Region III, we compete year in and year out. Anchorage does dominate as you look at a long history."

A perennial state contender with some of the fastest runners in the state, Kodiak, he said, is different, as its receives rain rather than snow.

"I can't think of an Anchorage school that isn't aware of Kodiak or at least scared of them," Howell said of the Bears, whose boys captured the state title last season. "It would be horrible to think what they could do with an indoor track. ... A miserable day in Kodiak is 40 and raining."

Miserable days cease to exist in Anchorage anymore.

"I really think that if we don't get a facility to at least match what they have or at least come somewhere in the ballpark, they'll have to do something to separate Anchorage outside the competition," he said of the Alaska Schools Activities Association. "The playing field won't be fair. They may have to create a (Class) 5A competition."

Asked if he thought the new facilities sprouting up around Anchorage kind of create an unfair advantage for city schools, Howell chuckled.

"I think 'kind of' is an understatement," he said.

Desjarlais is mindful of the need for such a structure outside Anchorage. He wishes he could help.

"When I was building this at the time, I was like, 'Kenai needs one, Wasilla needs one, Fairbanks,'" he said. "It would really impact those communities.

"I feel sorry for anybody that comes up from down there and goes in there. It's tough. Actually for competitiveness for Anchorage, they're at a big disadvantage. It's not like I want it that way," he added. "I envisioned in the beginning trying to do one in other places. Now, I need to take a break. This is the first thing I ever developed."

Bubble trouble

Brian Hoisington, like Desjarlais, has a dream.

Born out of his passion for golf, Hoisington, president of the Kenai Little League in 1999 and 2001 and the current umpiring chief for Kenai Little League and District One Little League, is lobbying to construct a similar fully air-supported indoor sports facility right here on the peninsula.

And while his original model included just a two-tier indoor driving range, he has since broadened his spectrum.

"It just made sense for having something down here on the peninsula, especially in wintertime. If you're not an avid skier or snowmachiner, there's not much for people to do," Hoisington explained. "It would be a great opportunity for golfers in the area and soccer teams to keep their games in peak levels.

"Instead of having only three or four months of golf time, you can practice keeping your game up year-round."

His blueprint, drawn up by the Farley Group, a company located in Ontario, Canada, that builds such facilities, is considerably smaller than The Dome, yet would include all the desirable amenities.

At 280 feet long, 190 feet wide and 68 feet high, Hoisington's model would be spacious enough to ideally hold 20 driving range tee areas, a soccer and baseball field and possibly batting cages, a pro shop and snack bar.

Having received mostly encouraging responses, Hoisington who's lived in Kenai for 12 years after spending 24 years in Anchorage said the facility would cost roughly $1.5 to $2 million.

"The biggest expense aside from the lease and the payment on the structure itself is utilities, because you have to heat it with warm air," he explained. "It will cost probably close to $2,000 a month for the heating bill."

Having garnered interest toward financial backing, but still requiring a considerable amount more, Hoisington's primary concern right now is finding approximately three acres of land to build on.

He took his quest on Thursday night to the Kenai Parks and Recreation Commission meeting where he proposed his plan to an eight-member panel, which listened intently, carefully digesting each and every word Hoisington had to offer.

"I think so," board member Al Hull responded when Hoisington asked if there is such a need in the community.

Kenai Central boys basketball and football coach Jim Beeson reinforced that notion.

"My thoughts are to make sure it's big enough to play high school soccer and football games in it," he said. "If we're going to do it, we might as well do it and do it the right way."

The committee, in full assistance mode, mulled possible land acquisition options and even steered Hoisington in the direction of the city planner.

"The proposal behind something like this," Beeson explained, "is we could be playing high school games right now."

Instead, teams have to wait until the weather cooperates, which in some years, might not be until late April or early May.

"We're stuck in our little gym," Kenai senior soccer player and board member Megan Gabriel added with a laugh. "It's small."

Despite having a long way to go by any stretch of the imagination, Hoisington is optimistic.

"I've got nothing but positive feedback from everybody I've talked to. Most of them have been golfers. ... But so far it's been very positive," he said. "The teams in Anchorage are getting a whole lot more practice with this thing and it's going to change the balance of competitiveness in their favor if our teams down here don't have the same chance to play, practice in a facility."

Supporting cast

If they build it, will they come?

"It's easy to say, I think, if you built something like that it would be pretty well used like the (Soldotna) Sports Center is," Sparks said. "You have an indoor thing like that, you know your Boys and Girls Club soccer teams are using it, high school soccer programs."

Sandahl agrees, saying local schools already face challenges maintaining their existing tracks, while simultaneously taking advantage of Skyview's all-weather track, the only one in the vicinity.

"My wheels have been turning for several years," Sandahl said, "and basically for me, I haven't gotten past, 'Who do I ask to get this going?'

"When you get on those tracks you feel like you want to run, you want to jump, you want to go. It totally is motivating," he added of all-weather surfaces. "They look good and they're just bouncy. They've got to be better on your joints and muscles."

Carpenter expanded the thought to a structure similar to Juneau's new facility, saying the area doesn't necessarily need an air-supported dome. Rather, it could be a warehouse or vacant building to lay down used artificial turf, which he said is easily and occasionally cheaply accessible. Or perhaps just an outdoor turf that can be plowed with ease.

"Not just for the kids," he said. "I think you'd see a growth in the adult leagues in starting playing, too. I think it would be really nice for the community.

"I'd run around," Carpenter added with a laugh. "I would be in the double old man's Rusty Blades league."

Siemers said he'd personally love to see a dome or an indoor facility in the area, although he understands the financial conundrum.

"We provide open gyms and community soccer through the year, but a gym just doesn't have the appeal that a turf dome would," he said. "I think overall we're envious of a dome or a facility that would provide more opportunity for the players on the peninsula."

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District seems aware of the need to bolster its teams chances and is taking the necessary steps toward easing the financial restraints to facilitate competitiveness. However, they're still not able to go the distance.

"Pupil activities were targeted in this year's budget process," Douglas said. "We have a recommendation to reinstate tournament funds where schools can apply for partial or full relief of funds to participate in statewide competitions. It was cut from the budget years ago.

"So, we are moving in that direction, but probably at a snail's pace," she added. "Kenai's focus is the classroom."

And getting the fields and tracks suitable for competition.

"While the Anchorage schools are indoors and stuff like that," Sparks said, "we're outside chipping ice off the track."

Keep chipping away.



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