Facing near-record snow season, here’s how Anchorage teams are getting on outdoor fields this spring

Over the 2023-24 snow season, Anchorage has received a near-record 132.6 inches of snowfall. It’s the most snow to fall on the city in a dozen years, putting this season in a tie for second place — trailing only the winter of 2011-12, when 134.5 inches fell.

While that pileup of snow has caused spring school sports to adjust preparations for their respective 2024 seasons, most have been able to get underway without much of a hitch. The Dome sports complex has allowed teams to start training and practice inside. And the volunteer efforts of people like Don Winchester and others have allowed student-athletes to compete outside on time.

Winchester has been leading the charge to get the middle and high school tracks and fields cleared in time for the outdoor portions of their seasons for the past four years.

“There was a need because kids were losing their sports time,” he said. “We just find volunteers and different people and get it done.”

Clearing the turf fields is a very delicate process in which heavy equipment can’t be used because about half of them rest on top of a tile system, and too much concentrated weight could damage the foundation.

“We came up with a plan to use snowblowers and (lighter equipment) to do it, and it doesn’t harm them or tear them up,” Winchester said. “It’s really the best and most efficient way to do the turf fields to have them ready.”

He doesn’t own a landscaping company, but he is a member of the Dimond High alumni association, which entered into an agreement with the Anchorage School District to provide his fellow volunteers with everything they need to get the job done and ensure they can do it safely.

Due to the high volume of snowfall this season, Winchester and his crews started the clearing process earlier than usual, knowing that more was likely to accumulate in the coming months.

“We don’t clear much of the field, but clear what we call a first cut so that it is easier for us to get on the field and get started because it’s really hard,” he said. “When you do a track, if you don’t do a first cut a few times, when you walk in, it’ll be really hard on the snowblowers.”

This year they made their first cuts in mid-January, which made the process much more manageable.

(Measuring up: How meteorologists gauge the snowfall as Anchorage nears a season record)

The middle school tracks and fields had to be cleared by this past Monday so that they could start the outdoor portion of their track and field season on time.

Winchester’s crews also assisted in clearing the Bartlett baseball field last week since that’s where most of the Cook Inlet Conference teams play their games at the start of the season, until Mulcahy Stadium is available.

The implementation of turf fields has been vital to the viability of spring sports in the Last Frontier, according to Winchester.

He is an Alaska sports historian and can recall a time when some high school track meets had to run in the hallways of schools because the outdoor tracks weren’t cleared.

“We’ve come a long ways, and the turf fields give you the ability to be able to clear them.” Winchester said. “If it was grass, you wouldn’t even be playing outside because the ground, it’s going to take forever to thaw, and then it’s going to be a mess and get all torn up.”

He firmly believes that grass fields aren’t efficient, and by having turf instead, it allows for longer seasons in the spring.

“I can remember in high school soccer where they would have 15 games scheduled when they were playing on grass, and some years they would get only five games in,” Winchester said.

Despite a ‘little damper’ with snow, soccer teams are adjusting

The high school soccer season is already underway with games held at The Dome since late last month. While teams have been able to train outside for the past few weeks if their fields have been cleared, the weather itself forced them back inside to the gymnasiums.

“When the weather is like the way it has been, cold and windy, the results aren’t the same as days where you can really go out there and open up,” Dimond girls coach Will Lucero said. “For safety issues and preventing injuries, we’d rather be inside working there rather than being outside where someone can slip and fall or pull a muscle because it’s too cold or they didn’t warm up properly.”

He admits that it has put a “little damper” on the start of the season, looking at where they feel they would’ve been by now from a team development standpoint compared to years past.

“It takes a lot more of having to articulate exactly what I’m looking for, and you don’t have the same space to create those same tactical runs or passes that we need to keep improving our game,” Lucero said. “We make it work, but it’s just a smaller-scale version of what we want to be doing.”

Dimond’s field has been cleared for weeks. But no games are permitted to be played on a school’s outdoor field until the fields at every school in the district are cleared and available for use, to ensure no team gets an outsized home advantage. That should happen in Anchorage later this week, although Mat-Su schools have already hosted games.

“They’ve been itching to get outside (for games) since Day 1,” Lucero said. “They’re ready to go outside and just open it up.”

Of all the spring sports, track and field has been the least impacted due to training and competition opportunities at The Dome. Teams have been practicing there since last month and the venue has already hosted multiple meets.

How teams are adjusting on and off the diamond

While Bartlett’s field was cleared for the baseball season to get started on time late last week, the same can’t be said for softball.

Unlike track and field, soccer and baseball at the high school level in Anchorage and Chugiak, softball is still played on natural grass and dirt fields at the Chuck Albrecht Softball and the Loretta French Sports complexes.

The near-record snowfall has affected the ability of teams such as three-time defending state champion South to be able to properly prepare for the season.

“It’s really affecting us getting live reps on a field because the field only just got cleared a couple weeks back, and we’ve only had one outside practice right now,” South head coach Brandon McCutcheon said Monday. “For us at South, we don’t have other resources other than turf on the football field, so it poses a real scenario where we won’t set foot on a field until our first game.”

This year’s snow has made preparing for the season and refining the fundamentals of playing the game more challenging because most teams, aside from Bartlett, aren’t practicing on a surface similar to what they’ll be playing on.

McCutcheon said South has been able to practice twice a week in the school’s bigger gymnasium.

“But even in the gym, it’s not a natural environment for softball players,” McCutcheon said.

The Wolverines aren’t able to run any full-speed reps because they don’t want to risk anyone getting hurt.

“The hop is different, the ball plays different and we don’t want kids getting injured, which has happened a couple times in the past where a player got injured in the gym,” McCutcheon said. “We’re always anxious to get out on the (field) because that is the most game-like we’re going to get at South.”

The snow makes an already brief season even shorter and gives players a short window to acclimate to the field and one another.

“There’s not a lot of time in the schedule to get each of our teams a couple practices prior to starting game play,” McCutcheon said. “Everyone is going to be learning as they step onto the field.”

He said one of the South players’ parents helped expedite the clearing process for fields No. 1 and No. 2 at Albrecht with a snowblower to help them get more sunlight and thaw quicker. Even that had to be done delicately to avoid leaving vehicle tracks in the dirt or outfields.

“The most he could do was get down to a couple inches of snow left on the field,” McCutcheon said. “It helps tremendously, but right now I am concerned because I don’t like a sticky field because I don’t want our athletes getting injured.”

When they started playing outside last year, McCutcheon recalls several small ponds littering the outfield, which posed an injury risk to outfielders.

“In an ideal world, it’d be 100% ready, but it’s Alaska and we had near-record snowfall, so we’ll see what happens,” McCutcheon said.

The 2024 Cook Inlet Conference softball season is tentatively scheduled to get underway this weekend, but that will ultimately depend on whether the playing surfaces are deemed safe.

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