Better for the Oval: Soccer or baseball?


The Battle of Gunnell Oval is over … for now … but the guns are still smoking.

Advocates for soccer and baseball skirmished last Wednesday, Feb. 15, as Kearny unveiled its latest plan for a turf makeover of the environmentally compromised municipal youth athletic complex east of Schuyler Ave. that was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Each group reasoned that because municipal and school playing space now available is at a premium due to keen competition for time slots, the town’s plan for several overlapping fields would just throw oil on the fire.

But Fourth Ward Councilman Michael Landy, liaison to the town’s Recreation Committee, justified “multi-purpose” fields as a way of maximizing athletic opportunities for Kearny kids of varying ages, even if that means “bumping” travel teams.

Still, the town may be hard-pressed to defend its turf against potential incursions from outsiders since part of the $20+ million project’s funding already in hand – $1.1 million – is from the state Green Acres program.

And, as explained by Mayor Alberto Santos, “With Green Acres, [fields are] open to anyone who seeks a permit.” However, Landy later told The Observer that the town “can prioritize use of the fields for local Rec teams,” unless a given field is not scheduled for use and is empty.  

But last week, the focus was on how best to accommodate the Kearny youths who are scrambling for places to play at the Oval.

Evan Jacobs and David Juzmeski of Neglia Engineering, the town’s consulting engineers, outlined the newest draft of the project to an SRO crowd in the council chambers and fielded questions.

As now proposed, the reconstituted Oval – still probably around two years or more from realization – would see its current grass surface replaced by artificial turf with 10 to 12 inches of stone underneath to better absorb any excess water.

Once the environmental infrastructure (depositing clean fill and capping, elevating the site, installing a pump/storm water drainage system) is done, the new playing surfaces would be incorporated: three Little League baseball fields, one girls’ softball field, two small T-ball fields, one high school regulation-size soccer field and two smaller soccer fields, with some overlapping between soccer and baseball.

Landy said that every effort was made to keep the same number and type of fields before and after Sandy.

In the center of a cloverleaf layout, a two-story concessions stand would be built with windows providing views of the three Little League fields below, radiating out from the center. Nearby, there would be new bathroom facilities. Also planned: new basketball court, new tennis court and batting cages. There would be limited security lighting and parking for 41 additional cars.

(Maps reflecting two versions of the Oval’s proposed layout showing differently-sized large soccer fields are posted on the town website.)

Asked by resident Joe Toth whether the new turf would be safe for kids to use, Juzmeski said: “There’s been studies on both sides of the aisle. Basically, unless you’re picking up pebbles, it’s safe.” As for wildlife feces, Juzmeski said: “With these type of [turf] fields, you can wash them down and the fecal matter will infiltrate into the stone.”

But what most folks wanted to know was how the playing spaces would be divvied up.

Scott Millar, a soccer coach who played both Rec soccer and baseball as a youth, said he hoped the two sports could “co-exist,” but quickly added, “I do take issue with this design,” on the grounds that, “we’re adding sport-specific fields” for a sport – Little League baseball – whose player numbers, he said, have declined in recent years, to the detriment of soccer.

As things are now in Kearny, known as “Soccertown USA,” Millar maintained, “there’s never going to be enough space for kids to play soccer.” But, he added, installing “portable [removable] fences could help create true multi-purpose fields” because they would “free up more space for soccer after baseball season.”

Kearny Little League President Tom Witt conceded that “our numbers are down, but we’ve continued to maintain 12 teams.” Given the proposed design, “there’s no reason why we can’t get along [with soccer].” But he pointed out that national Little League rules mandate “permanent fencing” to avoid situations where “a ball hit to right field would just keep rolling and rolling.”

“We’re more than happy with this [design],” Witt said. “Most towns would kill to have something like this.”  

But Bill Galka, who coaches soccer at Kearny High, former KHS soccer standout Stefanee Pace Kivlehan, Thistle President Paul Mullins and Thistle coach Michael Marra all pushed for more attention to be paid to soccer.

Galka said: “Harvey Field is overused as it is. And during baseball season, it gets to be a circus.” And when work starts on the Oval, “we’ll be losing the one big field – this is going to be a big issue in the spring for scheduling games.” Plus, he said, “other soccer organizations are coming into town. They’ll be battling each other for time.” Pace and Marra added that soccer is a “year-round” sport. “For the past four years, Thistle has been paying $6,000 to $7,000 to light up the back part of Harvey Field [for evening soccer].” Mullins asked for lights for the smaller soccer fields at the new Oval.

Newly retired KHS athletic director John Millar (Scott’s dad) aimed for an overall truce between the factions, saying that, “The needs of the community are going to satisfied with this [design] option,” which, he added, calls for “first-class facilities,” which can be used “to host regional district (soccer) tournaments and it’s going to be good for the baseball community. … Are you going to tell me we can’t sit down and make this work?” Since the project is “going to take 18 to 24 months to complete,” that’s plenty of time to hash out the details, “but only due to cooperation by everyone and we’ll be doing a lot of juggling.”

Primary focus of the debate is how to mesh the larger soccer field with an overlapping Pony League (Little League for ages 13 and 14) field.

Landy is pitching a compromise that would put in a permanent fence shared by both fields, shorten the right field line, from 280 to 260 feet by taking out part of a walking path; and set the length of the soccer field at 110 yards, while Santos favors a 120-yard soccer field – “no multipurpose but to more closely approximate what’s there now.” His rationale: “Because of the points raised by John and Scott Millar and Stefanee Pace” and, given that “the number of participants in soccer programs is twice that of baseball,” soccer should be given preference in this instance.

Landy said: “We have plenty of fields for Rec fall-only soccer but the demand is for travel groups to use those fields. Some of those travel teams admit to only 75% of their players living in Kearny. My priority is to ensure that Kearny kids get to use them.”

Santos concluded that, “We need to do more work,” and “the next step will be another [design] iteration which we will post online, have another public meeting to get your comments. Then, we should have two months to finalize plans and go out for bids.”

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