Freeport prepares to unveil $4.48 million stadium complex
John Gaillot envisions opening night and his face lights up. He's like a kid who can't wait to tell an unbelievable story. He almost can't get the words out fast enough.
“I get goose bumps,” the Freeport football coach said. “I see our guys lined up 2-by-2, holding hands and starting their walk to the field. Everyone's like, ‘Here they come.' ”
Gaillot can't wait for Freeport to unveil its new on-campus stadium to fans this fall, and for his team to usher in its venue. The $4.48 million complex, nestled neatly beside the track and current football practice field, is nearing completion and should be ready for use by July 1, according to athletic director Shawn Stivenson.
Last season, Freeport said goodbye to the place it had called home since the 1940s, James Swartz Memorial Field, which was located in Freeport Borough. Swartz, antiquated by decades of wear and tear, was respectfully abandoned for a more modernized approach: artificial turf and a longing to have everything all in one place.
Freeport has made a concerted effort to get with the times, with a new gymnasium and a football field accentuating that thinking.
A community that has tradition clenched tightly in its grasp had mixed reactions when plans were first unveiled for the on-campus stadium. But the program asked for open-mindedness as it stepped away from its long-standing field.
“Freeport football is a big book, about this thick,” Gaillot said, holding out his hands, palm-over-palm, about six inches apart. “There have been many chapters. We're just turning the last page and starting a new chapter. It's new tradition and old heart.”
Freeport will save money as players dress at the renovated high school locker room and make the short walk to the unnamed stadium, which will seat up to 2,000. Players used to get bused from the high school to the borough field.
In its design, the new venue could draw comparisons to Highlands Golden Rams Stadium. The larger press box is similar to the one at Knoch Knights Stadium.
Most noticeable upon entering the front gate, beneath the “Freeport Area” archway, is the bright gold and blue that accents the glistening ProGrass turf. Block letters spell out Freeport in each end zone and a Yellowjackets logo grins proudly at midfield.
“That yellowjacket is huge,” Gaillot said. “I think the field is perfect.”
The first athletic event on the new carpet will be a football scrimmage Aug. 20 against Westinghouse. On Sept. 1, Freeport will have its annual “Spirit Night” and the football home opener is Sept. 9 against Deer Lakes, which also opens Allegheny Conference play. Deer Lakes was the opponent in the final regular-season game at Swartz Field.
Stivenson expects the field to get plenty of use.
The new stadium — loosely being called an athletic complex because it also will host soccer and lacrosse — will welcome the Alle-Kiski Valley Band Festival on Sept. 21.
“The kids are excited, and I am excited for them,” Stivenson said. “It's been neat to see the progress of the stadium. I want to see it filled with people.”
While there are lines all over the field to mark soccer and lacrosse areas, their colors blend rather than clash with football lines. Soccer lines are a different shade of green, boys lacrosse lines are black, and girls lacrosse lines are blue.
Stivenson does not think the new digs will lack the atmosphere of Swartz.
“It will be a different atmosphere, yes,” he said, “but winning brings atmosphere. Being on campus is the biggest plus. And the football field is the same size as the other one.”
Players also are adjusting to the changes. Some that played at Swartz were reluctant, at least at first, to move all operations to the high school.
“We'll see how it goes. I always liked the old field because we all grow up playing (at the youth field) beside Lernerville (Speedway),” incoming senior center/nose guard Noah Freeman said. “We've been at the borough since 1923. We'll have to try and make a new tradition.”
The home locker room will be complete with 54 finished-wood lockers, all the work done by the coaches, who arrive early and stay late to pound nails and paint.
A 55th locker will be carved out for the late Derek Durand, a former Yellowjackets standout who died in 2012. His father, Todd, is an assistant at Freeport. Gaillot said the locker will go home with Todd.
Opponents also will dress in a locker room in the high school.
Accommodations at Swartz Field often left visiting teams with much to ask for, a somewhat dingy downstairs setup at the old junior high. It also created some awkwardness when the visitors came up the steps only to some face-to-face with Freeport players and coaches who gathered at the top of the steps above the field just before pregame.
“No good old steps anymore,” Freeman said.
Of the nine football schools in the Valley News Dispatch coverage area, four have turf. Kiski Area has a turf field on campus and while there has been discussion about moving games there, the Cavaliers will continue to play home games at Davis Field in Vandergrift, another A-K Valley relic with a storied past.
Stivenson said he wants to host WPIAL playoff games as a neutral site in football and soccer.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor for the Valley News Dispatch edition of the Tribune-Review. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.