WEST POINT —
Coaches, players, parents and boosters from the West Point High baseball team are exploring numerous avenues for obtaining money to replace their baseball stadium’s “1970s, outdated” lights after the inadequacy of the current set nearly caused multiple home games to be cancelled last season.
Warriors coach Trai Meadows said the problem came to a head early in the 2012 campaign when an umpire stopped play in the middle of a ballgame shortly after the sun had set and West Point’s lights had already flickered on to full capacity.
“He told me, ‘Coach, y’all’s field isn’t properly lit. I need to take these players off the field for their own safety,’” Meadows recalled. “My first thought was, ‘Are you serious?’ but he said it wasn’t lit up well enough and he’d have to turn it in to the state.”
The coach isn’t sure if that umpire ever actually reported the incident, but it served as enough of a wake-up call for Meadows to spring into action. He said he talked to principal Heith Yearwood and a few of the players’ parents shortly thereafter, and they’ve been working toward improving the situation ever since.
One of those parents, Greg Wrenn, has spearheaded the efforts, sending out letters to community organizations, planning fundraisers and scheduling professionals to assess the Warriors’ lighting situation. He said a representative from the Tennessee Valley Authority deemed the stadium’s lights “inadequate” following an inspection, as did an employee with Musco Lighting, a company recommended by the Alabama High School Athletic Association.
Right now, the best solution would involve Musco Lighting replacing all the lights at West Point’s baseball stadium. The only catch is that it would cost $155,000, a hefty amount the Warriors currently can’t afford.
A less expensive alternative would be to complete the project in phases. Wrenn said the first stage would include replacing the lights on the foul poles behind first and third base, in addition to replacing faulty bulbs and readjusting lighting fixtures in the outfield.
Even that much work would cost between $30,000 to $40,000, though, which isn’t exactly chump change in an economy where money isn’t as readily available for school systems and their athletic departments.
“The bottom line is all through the years, the local schools are in charge of their athletic facilities,” Cullman County Schools Superintendent Billy Coleman said. “We do everything in our power to help them. We just don’t have the funding. What we do with a lot of the facilities is get companies to come in, give us the best deal on projects and refer them to local schools.”
Coleman said there aren’t as many opportunities for project assistance as there used to be at the national, state and local levels. The funding legislators were once able to provide has diminished greatly, and past programs like the Cullman Electric Cooperative’s that once would’ve allowed West Point to lease new lights with the intent to eventually hand them over to the Warriors are no longer feasible.
“We’re doing everything we can to think outside the box, but it will take some time,” Coleman said. “It’s just tough times. Our entire economy is hurting, and a lot of services that used to be there just aren’t there anymore. All those athletic projects are super important, but it’s hard to come up with money for all the various projects we have going on.”
Because there hasn’t been as much help available from the outside, Wrenn and others affiliated with the West Point baseball program have had to do everything in their power to help themselves. Their mission wasn’t made any easier this past offseason as a great deal of the money they had raised from fundraising had to be spent on replacing the team’s bats to comply with the AHSAA’s switch to BBCOR models.
“At about $400 a bat, that didn’t take long to get rid of,” Wrenn said.
Yearwood worked his way up the coaching ladder in West Point’s boys varsity basektball program before eventually becoming the school’s principal. Now that he’s in an administrator’s role, Yearwood said it’s been easier to “see the whole picture.” He’s not only concerned with the baseball stadium’s insufficient lighting but also with the deterioration of at least two other athletic facilities on campus.
“The tennis court is falling to pieces,” Yearwood said. “In a few years, we won’t be able to play tennis on our courts. They’ll be condemned. They’re the same age as the track, which is falling apart at the same rate.
“It’s not cheap to have a track or courts resurfaced without grants or financial help. It is a huge challenge for us as a school because the funding is so limited for the school budgets. That leaves so little financial options for the school. Now you’re trying to do so much with your money.”
The foremost concern surrounding this lighting situation is the players’ safety. Wrenn said there’s a chance West Point will have to schedule all its home games for daylight hours only if improvements aren’t made by the 2013 season.
But if the Warriors do continue to play under the unfavorable conditions of their current lighting system, how long will it be before a player gets seriously injured by a line drive they couldn’t see in time or another similar situation?
If Meadows has his way, he won’t have to find out.
“The safety issue is big,” he said. “I don’t want any kids getting hit. You don’t want to put that in the umpire’s hands where he has to make the call to pull the kids off the field because of the lights.”
As West Point’s center fielder this past season, Tate Duckett most likely knows more about how difficult it can be to play under his homefield lights than any other player.
“At night, it’s hard out there,” he said. “The lights are just so old, I guess, and they aren’t bright. The ball is just really hard to see, especially when I get high fly balls.
“It’s a difficult task to be a West Point outfielder.”
With one more year left of high school, Duckett couldn’t think of a better going-away present than a brand new set of lights.
“It’s my senior year,” he said. “I’d like to go out with the least amount of errors as possible. Having new lights at our field would be greatly appreciated.”
‰ Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.