May 21, 2016

As Whitaker Fields Are Renovated, UT Club Teams Scramble

Reporting Texas

Whitaker Fields desperately needed attention.

The 35-acre property, home to intramural and club sports at the University of Texas at Austin, hadn’t been improved in three decades. The grass wouldn’t stay green. The lighting was poor and consumed a lot of energy. The fields took too long to drain after rain.

The university’s Division of Recreational Sports, or RecSports, closed the fields in October for a badly needed renovation. But the decision has left club teams without a place to practice.

“We’re homeless,” said Matt Prewitt, who coaches the men’s club soccer team.

Ten club teams use the facility for a variety of sports. The complex on Guadalupe Street between 46th and 51st streets has multiple fields.

For now, though, those teams have to share a single field at Clark Field, rent other fields or don’t play.

The soccer team cut its practice schedule from three nights a week to once a week, on Saturday mornings.

“Clark is scheduled 100 percent of the time,” said Jennifer Speer, associate director of RecSports who helps coordinate the new schedules. “Everybody wants to do everything Monday through Thursday from 6 to 10 p.m.”

RecSports has been working with the city of Austin to make some of its fields available to the club teams.

The club baseball team, for example, is playing on city fields this semester because Clark Field isn’t wide enough for the sport. But the city charges $150 for six hours of practice time.

The club archery team lost its indoor range in the Anna Hiss Gymnasium at the end of fall 2015. It was closed indefinitely as the university decides what to do with the space. Clubs, offices and classes were forced to relocate.

The archery team would have moved to their outdoor practice space —  except that it’s at  Whitaker.

“It’s very frustrating not having a place on campus or that is near to campus to practice when we have tournaments that we want to compete in as a team,” said Jasmine Jones, a member of the archery team. “We have to go elsewhere to find somewhere to practice.”

The team now practices at the indoor range at Austin Archery Country, a store on Research Boulevard that is 15 minutes from campus.

Club teams also have to figure out venues for competitive play. Some have decided to play all their games away. Some, like the club soccer team, are looking to host games at other facilities.

“But of course that costs money,” said Prewitt, the men’s club soccer coach. Renting another field could cost around $200 for a single match, he said.

RecSports will help pay a percentage of their costs, Speer said.

She said RecSports knew such issues would arise when it was closing Whitaker Fields, but hoped the promise of improved amenities would make the club teams understand the decision.

“Everybody has had to sacrifice a little bit,” she said. “But they know what’s coming, and ultimately it’ll be well worth the short sacrifice.”

The $23 million renovation is indeed substantial. The grass, which had sheared off almost completely in some places, is being replaced. The irrigation system is being overhauled. The renovated facility also will have a turf field that can be used for tournaments and other events, as well as energy-efficient lighting.

Club teams will be allotted their own areas where, among other things, they will be able to store equipment so they don’t need to lug it to and from every practice session.

But RecSports wants Whitaker Fields to become more than a facility for club sports. To engage the less athletically inclined, there will be patches of grass where students can sit, socialize or study.

The fields are expected to reopen in fall.

“We’re hopeful that the end product is worth waiting for,” Prewitt said. “As long as we have access to the grass fields, I’ll be a happy man.”