The Fort Lewis College softball team waited a long time to play at Aspen Field – 727 days to be exact – and the Skyhawks made the most of it.
FLC split its series with Colorado State University-Pueblo, with a 3-2 win in Game 1 and a 7-4 loss in extra innings in Game 2 Saturday on the FLC campus. The two teams played again Sunday, as FLC won Game 3 of the series 8-6 before dropping the finale 6-3.
Even though they could have done without the extra-innings loss Saturday, the Skyhawks were plenty happy with playing their first real home game since April 24, 2016.
“It’s hard to describe what it means to me,” FLC senior Lauren Caldwell said. “Coming in as a freshman and practicing on this field, walking over from West (dormitory) and being here every day to not having that opportunity anymore, and regaining all of those cherished memories from all of the seniors who graduated before us, all of the wins and even the losses that we had, it feels like that was a part of me that was missing, and I got that back today.”
The Skyhawks (15-35, 9-27 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) spent their 21 home games of the 2017 season and their first 16 home games of this season playing at the Aztec Tiger Sports Complex in New Mexico while Aspen Field underwent a massive renovation that included the field, dugouts, fencing, a new scoreboard, batting cages, a bullpen and the pressbox, which now includes concessions, lockers, and restrooms. The project was in coordination with the City of Durango, which uses the fields for its summer recreational leagues for kickball and softball. The fields were closed for the city leagues last summer, too.
The project was expected to be completed in time for the 2018 season, but multiple delays kept pushing back the target date.
A shallowly dug water line was found running under the field last fall and needed to be realigned deeper underground, causing a delay in the renovation progress. When the season drew nearer, the field was not in adequate condition for playing, as the sod in the outfield failed to grow in and water from snow melt did not drain properly, which left the surface soft and soggy. There was also a prominent lip where the dirt infield met the grass of the outfield, which led to awkward bounces of the ball as well as an injury risk for the players moving on the uneven surface.
Traveling 70-plus miles round trip to Aztec for each home game was less than ideal, but the games weren’t the only issue with the long renovation project, which also forced the Skyhawks to hold practices anywhere they could find space.
“Finding a place to practice was probably the hardest thing, but we couldn’t help it,” FLC senior Tristen Gilbert said. “We were out here some days, or we’d be at the football field or the gym, down at Folsom (Park), sometimes in Aztec and even on their football field. Really, just where ever we could be that’s where we were at.”
Along with the field surface being in rough shape, the dugouts weren’t yet finished, which prompted the Skyhawks to take matters into their own hands, as they began working on the dugouts themselves.
The FLC coaches, head coach Elle Fracker and assistant Stephanie Roan, were at the field constantly and would send messages to the players asking them to help whenever they had free time in their schedules. They helped with everything from sweeping and raking to mixing and pouring cement and laying the bricks for the dugouts, all working tirelessly to have the field ready for Saturday’s games.
“It’s easy to find something to make an excuse and say, ‘Oh, we don’t have any home games, so whatever.’ But they never did,” Fracker said. “They held onto hope that we would get this weekend, and you saw it in the first game how excited they were and how much it meant to them. That’s why we’ve been busting our butts to get out here.
“We laugh that it’s sweat equity. They have something invested in this. They laid one of those bricks and swept out the dugouts and did some of the set up this week. It makes you proud of where you are and makes you want to protect your home a little more.”
During the construction of the dugouts, all the Skyhawks signed a ball and placed it in one of the bricks closest to home plate of the home dugout to leave their mark in a way that would survive long past their final game in an FLC uniform.
“If they ever decide to redo them, it’ll be in there and someone will find it and it’ll be a pretty cool moment,” Fracker said. “Their names are on that ball and that will be something special for this team. They went out and got their first win in their first game on this field. All the hard work they put in, it makes it worth it.”