A team without a home
It’s been six decades since Chico High football last had a stadium to call its own
The Chico High School football player takes a deep breath, and exhales. He steels himself for tonight’s big game, and as he adjusts his chin strap and then pounds his fist into his palm for inspiration, he surveys the field before him.
He appreciates and admires the perfectly uniform playing surface with its impeccably marked lines and end zone indicia. And although the autumn evening’s clash won’t use it, he admires the immaculate all-weather track surrounding the field.
Only, this isn’t the home field for Chico High School football.
It could be one of the four schools in the Redding high school district, or it could be Red Bluff or Oroville. That’s because the CHS Panthers don’t have a “home” field they use for varsity competition, just as they haven’t played a single down on their campus in nearly six decades.
Chico played its home games at Chico State University from 1954 through 2010. It switched to Pleasant Valley High School in 2011 in a cost-cutting measure, as money strains forced the district to hold off financial implosion of the entire sports program.
The Panthers can’t play games on their campus. For a city that offers such amenities as Bidwell Park, a vibrant downtown, and a bicycle-friendly environment, Chico has a decidedly embarrassing football and track facility at its oldest high school.
A home for weeds
Chico High School’s track sits at the far southwest corner of the campus. Overgrown with weeds and unkempt along its western and southern borders, the track nonetheless hosts meets every spring. The field serves as the practice facility for the school’s football teams.
The field is also weedy and uneven, sporting a pair of old-school “H”-style goal posts.
While the rest of the campus is green and well-trimmed, the area around the track provides a stark contrast. Where spectator seating once stood is now a pile of dirt brimming with weeds; after rains it is impossible to reach the track without walking through mud.
The facility is also easily accessible to everyone. Since many pedestrians use the school’s fields as a north-south thoroughfare, there are well-worn paths between the university and West Sacramento Avenue. One of these paths runs adjacent to the track.
These trails get muddy during wet weather; people who use the track for recreational walking or jogging bring dirt and small rocks with them onto the surface. This in turn puts additional strain on the surface texture, resulting in considerably less-than-optimal conditions for holding competitive track meets.
Of course, Chico High School coaches, athletic boosters and administrators would be thrilled to improve the facility and adequately secure it. But to do this likely would cost millions of dollars—money unavailable in these lean economic times.
Desire, but no money
What can Chico High School do in its quest for an on-campus facility?
As the president of the Chico High School Sports Boosters, Lori Twisselman said she’s confident that a new facility on the campus is not only possible—it’s imminent.
“One of our long-term objectives has been to get a stadium on campus,” she explained. “Originally, we were counting on bond money”—from Measure A, the successful 1998 measure that was intended to fund a third high school—“and we were optimistic that we could start the project for $1 million.
“We have people who are willing to donate materials and the expertise to get it done.” That includes PG&E, from whom the boosters could get field lights.
“We do need start money,” Twisselman said. “That’s what has held us up all along.”
The $40 million in bond funding has about been exhausted. The district has spent significant portions of it on modernization of both Chico and PV. Big expenditures include the Performing Arts Center at Pleasant Valley—a shared district facility—and a two-story classroom building at Chico. The latter has eliminated the need for portable classrooms on the campus.
PV has a bond-funded project about to begin that will increase its permanent classroom space. Chico has a second gymnasium on the way—a project that has broken ground earlier this year.
“We’re looking more at a ‘starter’ stadium,” Twisselman said. “There is some finagling going on that could take out a loan against the remainder of the funds, which would extend the life of the bond.”
Not so fast, said Chico principal Jim Hanlon.
“Funds are tight, and we’ve prioritized them,” he said, pointing to the second gym about to get built. Chico has long used a single gym—built in 1935—that has been largely inadequate for a school of nearly 2,000 students.
The new gym will have a cafeteria attached to it.
“Quite a bit of money has been spent on that project,” Hanlon said. “The same is true [with the new classroom building] at PV. Money has dwindled.
“Could we spend lots of money on a stadium? We could, but the priorities are on classrooms. We now have good PE and classroom facilities; we’ve modernized every building on campus except the administration building.”
From luxurious to basic
The quality of high-school football facilities varies widely from place to place. It’s common in many schools to have a patch of grass with a dirt oval around it, though increasingly districts are investing in “all-weather” tracks.
And, more and more schools are installing field surfaces made from artificial turf, just like college and professional football teams use. These surfaces are costly, often at least $500,000, and have useful lives of only 15 years before they begin to break apart at the seams and show dangerous areas of wear.
Voters in Oroville, Redding, Red Bluff and Yuba City chose to upgrade their entire high-school stadiums by way of bond financing. Paradise raised funds and improved its track.
In these troubled economic times, citizens often object to spending considerable money on high-school sports facilities, while the schools these places serve are suffering from overcrowding and deferred maintenance bordering on obsolescence. These people argue that sports are a low priority and deserve correspondingly lower funding.
An opposing group’s viewpoint is that sports teach students teamwork and discipline, and keep many busy when they might otherwise be idle outside of school. Indeed, more than 40 percent of students at Chico and Pleasant Valley are involved in athletics.
In addition, the athletic program is for many members of the community the only direct contact they have with a high school. The quality of the competition facility, therefore, can create lasting impressions.
And, in smaller, rural communities, high school sports are a source of great civic pride—and often the only show in town.
Living as joint tenants
To understand how Chico High School has reached this point in the deterioration of its facility, we’ll need to rewind 60 years to the time when then-Chico State College inaugurated its football and track venue—now called University Stadium.
Chico State already had a track and football field, located where Shasta Hall and Lassen Hall dormitories now stand. The college’s teams played their post-World War II football games at Chico High School, whose field at the time occupied the northwest corner of the campus, where a large parking lot is now located. That facility was considered superior to the college’s pitch because it had lights, as well as more and better seating.
The two-tenant arrangement resumed at the university in 1954 when Chico High School moved its games there.
University Stadium has had no upgrades, other than brighter lighting, since Chico State dropped football following the 1996 season. Until the Panthers quit playing there, the CUSD had been paying a nightly rental rate of $1,300. It was, the district reckoned, a terrible deal as athletics became harder to fund.
Winning in spite of themselves
Chuck Sheley has been involved with Chico High School track and field since 1954, his sophomore year at the school, when he became a champion hurdler.
He became a teacher and coach with the CUSD, retiring in 1998, and has continued coaching track—now supervising the girls hurdlers after serving as head coach for the boys (1970-79). He began assisting with the girls in 1980.
The regrettable condition of Chico High School’s track is one of Sheley’s sorest spots. He vividly recalled the 1990s effort when retired administrator and track coach Mel Jones raised funds to convert the track to an all-weather surface.
Butte Creek Rock laid the base, the major portion of the $100,000 original construction. Developer Tony Symmes contributed $40,000 to the track’s resurfacing several years ago.
Sheley then recalled the real detriment to the track—essentially a man-made disaster in 2009. That was when Chico State began building its Sutter Hall dormitory, which opened in 2010 across from the track.
Due to its excavations, the university had a lot of dirt to get rid of. Chico High School wanted to use the dirt for a berm on which it could construct stadium seating.
“The [school’s] administration and athletic director got into a dirt-hauling project and just about destroyed the facility,” Sheley said. “The area under the trees along Warner Street became a garbage dump.
“Trucks were driving across the track and put a lot of rocks on it,” he said. “It really ruined it. That surface is really bad now. Dale [Edson, Chico’s head girls track coach] and I are thinking of running our meets at PV in 2014. We might even do it in 2013.”
Despite the poor facilities, Sheley said, the school routinely gets around 200 male and female athletes to participate in track annually. Not even big track powers such as West Valley (of Cottonwood) and Enterprise (of Redding) can match that, he said.
Even so, “our girls have won the league championship 30 of the last 37 years,” he said. “There’s no match to that anywhere in the state, to my knowledge. With this track, we win in spite of ourselves.”
“The girls won’t use them”
At any Chico track meet, or a baseball or softball game, participants and spectators have no convenient restrooms available. They must walk a few hundred yards to the CHS gym, or walk to Chico State and use the restrooms on campus.
The high school alleviates this somewhat by renting portable outhouses. Unfortunately, heavy use can quickly result in revolting conditions. Chico’s female athletes prove this: They refuse to enter the outhouses.
“The girls won’t use them,” Sheley said. He mentioned a 2012 meet when Chico hosted Enterprise; with a combined 300 athletes present, the strain was obvious on the three outhouses.
To bolster this, I clearly remember a 2010 meet I attended when Chico hosted Shasta; I was taking action photos for the coaches. As I walked near the outhouses, two girls from Shasta had horrified, “grossed-out” looks on their faces, while one said: “Oh, my god!” as they ran out of one and slammed the door.
I headed over to see what had offended them, though I knew the likely reason already. Inside the “sit-down” area of the outhouse, feces had accumulated so that it was in a pyramid-shaped pile above the blue toilet chemicals. In the stall’s greenhouse-like heat, the stench was overpowering—a medley of strong chemical and that unmistakable reek of human waste, reminiscent of a campground latrine.
These people from Redding must think they’re visiting a third-world country for a track meet, I remember telling myself.
The best and brightest
Oroville has its share of poverty and drug-related crime. Something that gives Oroville citizens justifiable pride, however, is Harrison Stadium, which underwent a $12 million renovation thanks to Measure G, approved in 2007.
Built in 1972, Harrison Stadium has the distinction of hosting the state track and field championships that spring. It was the last time the state finals were run on a dirt track.
What’s remarkable is that Oroville is staunchly conservative—meaning tax increases are usually a tough sell. However, thanks to the efforts of the Oroville Union High School District and residents who wanted a fabulous facility, the bond measure passed.
To hear the enthusiasm of Corey Willenberg, now the district superintendent, you might think he’s a teen talking about his first car. Instead, he’s talking about a facility that certainly ranks among the top ones in Northern California.
Before renovation, it was adequate but ordinary, and was the shared site of football, track and soccer for Oroville and Las Plumas high schools.
Now the playing surface is all-weather turf, with a twist: a subterranean cooling system with water pumped through pipes to keep the turf comfortably cool. Without this, hot days could see the surface reach temperatures of 140 to 160 degrees.
It also has a track made by Italian-based Mondo—the first such track surface on the West Coast. Mondo supplied the surfacing for the 2012 London Olympics.
If they were going to spend that kind of money, Willenberg said, district officials needed to make sure it was a top-notch place. They went so far as to fly to St. Louis to see a Mondo track.
There have already been measurable benefits to the renovation.
Along with the high schools and the Oroville Rhinos and Oroville Eagles youth football programs, Harrison Stadium hosted the Chico/West Valley Invitational in April for the first time. The large, high-level meet had been held at Chico State since the 1960s, but since the state began charging exorbitant fees for use of its facilities, meet director Scott Fairley of West Valley High School looked elsewhere for a site.
It turned out to be Oroville, whose economy got a boost when athletes and their parents came from as far away as Reno, Eureka and McKinleyville. They spent money at local stores, gas stations and restaurants—money that would otherwise never have come to town.
How the other school did it
Chico plays its football at Pleasant Valley, which has a clean, attractive and functional facility. Like Chico, the Vikings used Chico State for their home field for many years; their transfer to a true “home” happened 23 years ago.
The evolution of the PV stadium—named Asgard Yard after Asgard, the capital city of the gods in Norse mythology—has been a lengthy process requiring plenty of hard work and patience.
Randy Gilzean, a 1977 PV alumnus and currently a social-science teacher, saw much of the stadium’s development as the school’s athletic director, a position he held from 1993 until 2008.
The football team took to the field for the first time in 1989. For a few years the field was unlighted, meaning PV played its home games Saturday afternoons. It had a dirt track, no restroom facilities and no press or announcer’s rooms. It only had a set of grandstands and access to nearby locker rooms.
“A group of parents began pushing for a facility,” Gilzean recalled, adding that the improvement effort “was one bit at a time.”
By 1992, the school got some high-intensity lights that remain in use today. Pleasant Valley’s funding paid for the support poles; the district paid PG&E to install them. Unfortunately, they didn’t end up in the proper locations—at the 30-yard lines instead of the 20s.
The school built a concession stand and ticket booth in 1994, and bought two sets of aluminum bleachers in the 1995-96 academic year, one set in 1996-97, one in 1997-98 and two in 1998-99. Each set provides seating for 200 people.
PV completed permanent restrooms in 1998—ending a 10-year run of portable restrooms—using what Gilzean called a “flush fund” that was established in 1994.
The field got new sod in 2006, the same year the school installed its distinctive, bright-blue track (check it out on Google satellite).
An “Olympic” effort on the ridge
Paradise High School didn’t install artificial turf at its football field, but did refinish the track with a high-quality all-weather surface. It did this thanks largely to a former Olympian who lives in Paradise.
Jack Yerman, who was a gold medalist in the 1,600-meter relay at the 1960 Rome Olympics, retired from teaching history and social science at Chico High School. However, as a longtime resident of Paradise, he sought to improve on the track, which for many years consisted of crushed volcanic rock for better drainage.
Former Paradise Principal Mike Lerch remembers the effort well.
“We got a big grant from Waste Management in the form of recycled tires and rubber”—the critical ingredients in many all-weather tracks, Lerch explained. “The rest of the money came from community efforts and sponsorships. The district did kick in some facilities money.”
Paradise nearly joined the artificial-turf club in 2006, but financing just didn’t work.
“Butte Community Bank was going to give us a good-sized loan at a very good interest rate, and Paradise Unified [School District] was to put in facilities money, too,” he said. “It looked close to a done deal.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out. One of the issues was that, despite popular belief, artificial turf doesn’t save money in the long run. Many people think the elimination of mowing and watering, the replacement of sprinkler heads, as well as lining the field for events, will save money. Lerch said when all the costs are figured in, the savings just aren’t there.
Cost savings, better participation
Having home football games at Pleasant Valley has turned out to be remarkably beneficial, even though the old “home” field was right across the street from Chico.
“Moving to PV has been great for us,” Principal Hanlon said. “Chico State’s condition had deteriorated—the scoreboard, lights, stands…. With no football team there anymore, the university had no interest in putting money into the facility.
“We also had issues with parking. The lot over there is so small that people had to hike in, and that significantly affected the gate. On top of all that, we had to pay them rent,” he said.
Gate receipts are critical in football because that’s the one sport that receives substantial crowds.
“We’re getting significantly better crowds now that we’re playing at PV,” Hanlon said. “There’s better parking, and more kids are showing up. It’s a social event as much as it’s a sporting event.
“So it gets kids involved at the start of the school year, and it’s safer because kids aren’t walking long distances. Chico State has some issues being dark and dangerous in some parts.”
Chip Carton, Chico’s athletic director, said that while a stadium would be nice, “Facilities are getting better at both Chico and PV. Things are getting better, a little at a time. The coaches and boosters are working together and things are improving.”
He pointed to the example of Chico’s baseball fields, which now both have enclosed dugouts. Unfortunately, those dugouts have proven to be magnets for people who want to engage in activity out of sight of others.
“The vandalism is constant,” said Carton, who’s also the varsity baseball coach.
Hanlon agreed that the portable toilets have become almost untenable, because they serve spectators and participants at not just the track, but also baseball, softball, field hockey and soccer.
Carton echoed his approval of the school board’s cooperation. “The changes for the better in the last 10 years have come thanks to a supportive school board. We’ve made some big gains,” he said.
And on the idea of a stadium? Someday, Carton said: “We do have a dream and a vision.”