HAZEL GREEN, Wis. — Highway 11 slowly winds through the rolling farmland of southwest Wisconsin until, suddenly, off in the distance, rises a group of shimmering lights.
Below, still hidden from view, lies L.B. Carns Field, the longtime home of the Southwestern High Wildcats football team. But it hasn’t really been much to be proud of in recent years. The field is beaten up and there really haven’t been any on-campus athletic facilities worth bragging about.
But this time, on this drive, it is different.
A makeover is underway at the small school tucked into the corner of the state. The lights shine brighter now, it seems, as construction continues on a brand-new $2.85 million athletic complex.
A steady stream of vehicles pull into the parking lot and the new artificial turf field comes into view for the first time.
It’s bright. It just smells new. It’s definitely not the muddy, pit-filled patch of grass it was even just a year ago.
Southwestern is about to play its first football game on its new field. The bleachers are abuzz as residents discuss how the field looks so much better. Behind the press box, infields for new baseball and softball diamonds are still works in progress.
“I mean, it’s not Lambeau Field but it feels like it’s close,” Wildcats coach Pete Murphy says after the game.
Soon, the school’s track team will have its own home — a complete game-changer for a program that was living dangerously since its inception.
Now, this field is a source of pride for this community of about 1,000 people. And a revenue generator.
“It’s a culmination of a dream that I think a lot of us had for a long time,” Southwestern athletic director Tom Koeller says a few days later as he reflects on the process. “It goes back so many years where, obviously we had pride in our school and our teams and everything, but our facilities have been lacking for decades.
“I remember my first year coaching back in the early 2000s, coaching football at Southwestern, coaching softball, and the facilities weren’t quite up to snuff. I even remember when I played high school baseball in the 1990s for Potosi, one of my first games was at Southwestern on that baseball field and I distinctly remember, ‘Oh, this field isn’t very good.’
“So, it’s been a long time coming.”
The transformation began with an election. Two, actually.
The Southwestern School District put two referendums on the ballot for voters to approve in 2017. The first, a $10 million question, pertained to — among other improvements — building a new wing onto the high school which would allow the middle school to move from the elementary school building, a transition that made sense considering the younger students were already walking back and forth to the high school for classes.
“We focused so much of our conversations on what our needs were for the district academic-wise,” Superintendent John Costello said. “We needed to take a look at the infrastructure within our high school and us moving our middle school from the elementary building to the high school.”
The second question was for $2.5 million to update the dilapidated, and in one case, non-existent athletic facilities.
At the time, the first issue was a need while the second was more of a want. District representatives spent more time educating the public on why the $10 million referendum was so important.
It passed with 55% of the vote. The second referendum garnered just 45% approval.
“We were all thrilled we got the big one and made the addition to the school,” Koeller said. “Thankfully, some people didn’t quite let go of that dream.”
It was just a couple short years later that Costello resurrected the plan for the athletic facility, Koeller said. The referendum, again set at $2.5 million, went before voters last April.
There were two key factors this time around, Costello said. The plan was tax neutral, and the district had been fiscally responsible with the previous referendum.
“We paid $700,000 additional down on our referendum, saving the community $260,000 in interest over the life of the $10 million referendum,” he said, attributing rising property values for the district’s increased revenue. “Then we were able to this year also pay down $580,000 on the athletic field referendum, paying that down faster and therefore saving the community another $125,000 of taxpayer money over the life of that loan.
“So, us being fiscally responsible is really kind of a testament to the community in getting behind us. We know it’s an impact to our community, but we also want to make sure we’re doing our part to limit that impact for our community for years to come.”
The school district’s mill rate on property taxes hasn’t seen a major increase over the last six years, since it made a jump from $8.11 per $1,000 valuation to $10.32, Costello said. The $10 million referendum raised the mill rate to $10.75 and Costello said that rate should not rise because of the athletic facility project, but could in fact come down in future years as property values continue to rise and the district grows.
With a slightly larger turnout in 2020 — an additional 50 voters for a total of 1,262 at the onset of a pandemic, no less — the referendum received 59% approval.
Construction began almost immediately.
“It was just so exciting to look down there and see, the backstop of the old JV softball field was one of the first things that came down,” Koeller said. “Then they started tearing up the dirt a little bit and then the old press box came down.”
The most noticeable feature when you pull into the Southwestern High parking lot now, obviously, is the immaculate new football field.
Surrounding most football fields are rubberized tracks. But Carns Field has never had a track around it.
In fact, Southwestern’s track and field team has never had a track to call its own.
Costello doubles as Southwestern’s softball coach and led the team to its most recent state tournament appearance, a state runner-up campaign in 2016. His Wildcats practiced and played at Hazel Green Rec Park — a perfectly fine facility, but one that was also used by the youth league. The baseball team had a field on campus, but as Costello said, it “wasn’t a real appealing baseball field.”
Track practices, meanwhile, were held in the parking lot and on the sidewalks and roads of Hazel Green. The Wildcats have never had a home track meet.
“I could never imagine ... always having to practice on the blacktop and then we go and play Cuba City on a softball field,” Costello said. “It was unfair to them and now that no longer is ever going to happen because they can practice their splits for handoffs, they can practice the high jump on a field, they can do the triple jump, all sorts of things like that that they weren’t really accustomed to being able to use.
“And then you think of the safety of kids running on the streets and somebody that’s not paying attention driving and veers off the road and hits one of them, that was always a concern for me. So that will be a little bit better for us to have that track. Not a little, it will be a lot better when we have that track. And safer.”
All three sports begin practice for their pandemic-delayed seasons on April 19.
The rubberized track has not yet been laid — a long stretch of warm, precipitation-free days are needed to help with the curing process — but administrators are hoping for a mid-May completion, which leaves about a month to make use of it before postseason competition begins. Koeller expects the softball field to be the next part of the facility to come fully online with baseball to follow after the sod infield is put down. He expects baseball to play a slightly road-heavy first half of the season before the field is completed.
Once the track is finished, Koeller expects to get to work putting it to use.
“Track meets are a lot of work. That’s something that keeps this AD up at night, but it’s something that absolutely we want to get on that track this spring,” he said. “Our community wants us to get on that track this spring. Our community is hungry to find out what a home track meet looks like.
“As soon as I’m confident we can have a meet, whatever day that is, I’m getting to work putting that together.”
The original plan called for upgrades to the natural grass field, not artificial turf — which carries a price tag of roughly $700,000, Costello said.
But there were other factors to consider. Regular maintenance of the field occupied a large number of hours of the school’s maintenance staff — hours that could be spent working on other projects or fixing other issues that cropped up.
Artificial turf fields typically have a life expectancy of around 15 years. After the initial cost, there really isn’t much maintenance needed until the turf wears out.
And having artificial turf allows for practices — and physical education classes — in all types of weather conditions.
“If it rained like it did earlier this morning, we wouldn’t be able to touch that football field. We couldn’t go out there because it would tear it up,” Costello said. “Now, oh, 10 minutes after it’s done raining, they’re out there on that football field.”
It also helps that the field will be uniform throughout.
“There’s no divots and bumps and bruises and you always worry about that when you play at our field or some other field,” said Cuba City football coach Guy Kopp. “There could be a gopher hole or something, seriously, and there’s a low spot and sometimes those people cut the grass longer or shorter. This is a fair competition and athletes are allowed to be athletes.”
With the pandemic giving programs the option to delay their football seasons until spring, Southwestern’s seniors got a chance to play on the turf instead of playing an all-road schedule in the fall while the field was under construction.
It also provided a perfect storm for another revenue stream for the district. With a typically wet spring, teams could destroy their football fields in a matter of a couple weeks and summer heat could bake those ankle-breaking divots into the mud — making fields unsafe for the traditional fall season that kicks off in late August.
Once word got around that Southwestern was upping its game, other districts began to call.
Cuba City and Galena have both rented the field for varsity games. Koeller received inquiries from as far away as New Glarus. Several other districts in the area are playing lower-level football games on the field and some have asked to have their home games against Southwestern shifted to Hazel Green.
Renting the field costs $500 and Southwestern still collects admission from varsity contests. The school’s booster club has been operating its concession stand, giving another financial boost to all of the Wildcats’ programs.
“So really, over the long haul of the turf field, it’s more cost effective than having a dirt field,” Costello said. “A bigger upfront cost, but over the life of the field, it will eventually pay for itself.”
Kopp believes this could be the trigger point for the proliferation of turf fields on this side of the state — like it did in the eastern and central parts of Wisconsin. Platteville, which plays its home games at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Pioneer Stadium, is the only other school in southwest Wisconsin that plays its games on turf. The closest high school field in Wisconsin with turf, Murphy said, is in Middleton, more than an hour away in central Wisconsin.
“This is the best thing that has ever happened in my eyes to the southwest part of the state. We got turf,” Kopp said. “You know how many people have asked ‘Hey, you have turf down there?’ Well, I don’t, but my buddy Pete does.
“I’m envious of them. I think it’s awesome, like I said, for this part of the state because I think once communities see this, what can we do to get this? As far as the academics, Phys. Ed. and youth leagues and soccer, I mean, everything is here.”
Murphy sometimes has to pinch himself to make sure the facility is real.
“To be a Division 7 team in Wisconsin to have this complex is, it’s a godsend,” he said. “I don’t understand why every school that has grass isn’t considering going that way. It makes practice easier, people love playing here. Our spirits are up just because we’re playing here.”
And when schools are battling for every potential student, top-notch athletic facilities could very well tip the balance.
“We understand the reality,” Koeller said. “A family comes to town or comes to the area for whatever reason — a parent gets a job in Dubuque perhaps — and they’re going to check out schools. Go look at Cuba City, Benton, maybe Galena, Southwestern. And having that to greet them when they come pulling into our parking lot? It’s not the full story. We all know that schools are academic first, but education-based athletics are a big part of the school experience.”
Kopp would like a turf field of his own. He doesn’t expect he will need to go to the school board to plead his case, though.
“I think the community sees this. And our superintendent is fantastic, and our principal. They’re doing what’s best for us and it takes time,” he said. “You have to realize that in today’s day and age, when the taxpayers are footing the bill, it’s hard to vote. And I get that.
“But I think I’d vote yes.”
Back in Hazel Green, Costello and the rest of the Southwestern district are grateful their constituents did the same.
“We’re so blessed and thankful for the community’s support,” Costello said. “We look forward to continuing to grow our school district and make it the cornerstone of southwest Wisconsin.”