Campus West brings back home field advantage

The baseball and softball fields begin to take form November 2013 at the University of La Verne’s Campus West. The baseball field, at picture front, and the neighboring softball field, will afford spectators a great view of Mt. Baldy’s peak, visible to the north. / photo by Ryan Gann

The baseball and softball fields begin to take form November 2013 at the University of La Verne’s Campus West. The baseball field, at picture front, and the neighboring softball field, will afford spectators a great view of Mt. Baldy’s peak, visible to the north. / photo by Ryan Gann

by Daniel Hargis
photography by Ryan Gann

For the past three seasons, the University of La Verne baseball team has carried a sign reading “HOME” everywhere it has gone. In 2011, the team’s old home, Ben Hines Field, was demolished to construct parking lot D. Since 1999, the University softball team has been homeless as well, playing at the city of La Verne’s Wheeler Park. April 8, 2014, that “HOME” sign for both programs found a permanent place to hang with the dedication of the new Campus West Athletics Complex.

The $20 million complex has been planned for years. It will revive part of athletic student life at the University and help unite the La Verne community. Designed for competitive NCAA team use, the new, highly anticipated Campus West Athletics Complex puts both the University baseball and softball programs back on campus for the first time in more than a decade. “It’s a rare thing to have a chunk of land in Southern California, so it’s a great resource, and we have to make the most of it,” says Greg Dewey, former provost of the University of La Verne.

Campus West is comprised of 56 acres of land, all owned by the University but divided into three different historic areas: the Metropolitan Water District property, the Brown property and the Gainey property. The project is split into two phases, Phase I and Phase II, both of which take place on the 20-acre MWD land. Phase I makes up the majority of the $12 million project that became the NCAA softball field, the NCAA baseball field and associated structures like the batting cages, bathrooms, locker rooms, athletic training room and bleachers. Phase II will include the multipurpose field and additional parking facilities. Wheeler Avenue has extend into the new private road that wraps around the complex and is named “Verne Orr Way.” George “Verne” Orr led as dean of the University of La Verne School of Business and Global Studies but was most notably the former Secretary of the Air Force in President Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. Currently, there are no plans for the Brown and Gainey properties, but Dewey says he hopes that they will be developed for University use soon.

The most notable aspect of this complex is what it will do for University student teams. Based on the great turnout to football and soccer games at the newly renovated Ortmayer Stadium, Campus West will soon attract crowds to baseball and softball games. With the incorporation of the multipurpose field, the complex will support intramural sports opportunities, says Clive Houston-Brown, associate vice president of facility and technology services for the University. The multipurpose field will give the men’s and women’s soccer teams a new area to practice, allowing more flexible scheduling for the two programs. Nevertheless, both teams will continue to play their home games at Ortmayer Stadium where there is new artificial turf and field markings specific for soccer games.

A June 26, 2013, ground breaking dedication ceremony brought in the heavy equipment, and despite a few unforeseen problems, the field was dedicated 286 days later. Construction moved fast. By October, the Campus West site had tractors working piles of dirt strewn across the MWD land, and by Thanksgiving holiday both locker rooms and the public restrooms had foundations, plus sewer and drainage infrastructure was in place. While the fields were not open in time for either team’s first home game, Houston-Brown was enthusiastic that games would be played before season’s end. “We will do everything in our power to get [softball and baseball] on the field for at least a portion of the season. The leveling of the land was a big chunk of the work,” he forecasted in November. “The majority of the work was below the surface.”

CAMPUS WEST DIAGRAMNow, in April, the fields are finished, with supporting athletic buildings. Last minute construction glitches—protruding sprinklers plus a drain within the playing field area in front of the men’s dugout—kept coaches guessing about a firm opening day, but solutions were found, and playing dates firmed up for first games starting April 11. “There’s no place like home, and we’re home today,” La Verne Athletics Director Julie Kline said at the opening ceremony.

Emotional ties to a new field

Leopard Head Softball Coach Julie Smith has been involved with Campus West since coming to La Verne in 2008. She compares her feelings toward Campus West with those of when she was on the 1996 Olympic Softball Team; she did not feel like a real Olympian until the opening ceremonies in Atlanta, and Campus West did not feel real to her until the first game was played there. What she does know is the positive impact that the complex will make on her program. Smith remembers a moment a couple seasons ago when her team was in a position to host the NCAA Regionals, but one of her players asked her in passing whether they could host the games at Pomona-Pitzer’s field. Smith understood where her athlete came from and was not upset. It would be a big deal so it should be played at a good field, not at the city park where the team played for 15 years. Smith says, “I feel like the new field legitimizes a collegiate softball program. Now, we have a double whammy of greatness players will want to see.” No longer will Smith have to use the word “historic” to glamorize the city park; she will have a beautiful and unbridled stadium to show off. Julie Kline was the head softball coach in 1999 when the team moved off campus. “This is something I have been looking forward to. It just helps us better serve our students,” she says.

At first Head Baseball Coach Scott Winterburn says he had a hard time feeling excited about Campus West. Ask him about it now, and his joy and anticipation are obvious. Before coaching at La Verne, Winterburn played and then coached at Azusa Pacific University. He lamentingly recounts in his office how APU administrators continually told him that a new baseball field would be built. He left APU in 2001 to take his current position at La Verne, and APU still did not have a new field. Then, in 2005 or 2006, according to Winterburn, former ULV Athletics Director Chris Ragsdale told him that a new baseball field was in the future plans for ULV expansion. In fact, the first time Winterburn learned of the idea, Ragsdale simply passed him a folded piece of paper that read “2010.” That number forecast the year of field completion, “but once it was 2008, I knew that it wouldn’t happen by then,” Winterburn says.

Finally, 2011 came around, and things began to take shape. The 2011 season on the old Ben Hines Field, located on the main campus, was a lights out event. Even that was not enough for Winterburn, not until the lights were cut down from the field. “I felt like, OK, maybe it’ll happen,” he recalls. Since then, the plans began to take traction. Fast forward to the present: the sod is rolled, and infrastructure is in place. La Verne is playing home ball again. “When the earthmovers first fired up their engines and excavated for the first time, that’s when I said, ‘OK, we’re doing this thing,’ and I let myself get a little excited,” Winterburn says. APU still does not have that new baseball field.

Ben Hines, former La Verne head baseball coach (1961 to 1980), and Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach, played a huge role in the construction of the old field bearing his name. In the late 1970s, he, along with the help of colleagues, players, former La Verne Mayor Frank Johnson and L.A. County Fire Captain Milan Rupel, smoothed the rocky field, put up the lights, dugouts, bleachers and sprinkler system. Hines was not shy about how he felt regarding the demolition of the old field. “That really pissed me off. I felt sorry for Scott and the team having to play at every other place over the last couple years.” But now, with the construction of Campus West completed, Hines has a stronger belief in the team than ever before. “It makes me proud to know they’ll have their own place to call home,” Hines says. “They were very handicapped. Scott has pulled miracles having them play so well without their own field.” At the dedication ceremony, Hines received a tributary speech from former Athletic Director Jimmy Paschal. Also present was former Head Baseball Coach Owen Wright (1983 to 1998). Both Hines and Wright won best in the nation NAIA and NCAA baseball championships, respectively, and received awards for their dedication to La Verne Athletics.

Game delay moments

Like all things great in the world, Campus West was not built without any trouble or interruption. Early on in the process, the architects presented their first design to the committee overseeing the project, which included Winterburn and Smith. Immediately, there was a problem: The orientation of the fields in relation to the sun’s position in the sky at the start of games would be bothersome. The sun would be in the eyes of practically everyone involved in the game. Once rejected, the architects then had to reassemble the proverbial jigsaw puzzle. Fitting two correctly positioned diamond shaped fields, along with the parking lot, multipurpose field, locker rooms and batting cages was no doubt a daunting task. To solve this issue, the design committee examined two other baseball stadiums situated in Southern California: Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium. The new Ben Hines Field will be constructed as similar to those stadiums as possible, putting the sun’s rays in the right field corner as it sets in the spring.

Construction ran into another problem when an odd white powder was discovered in the soil, which pushed the project back about two weeks, says Dewey, who also holds the title professor of chemistry. This powder, scientific name “alumina flocculant,” is used to pull out sediments during the purification process of ground water. Dewey says that in order to make the fields have a proper foundation, the soil must be packed tightly. The soil for the fields comes from the hill nearby, and the project managers needed the powder to be completely extracted. Once the white powder was gone, the rain came, which set the project back another two weeks. Kline said there was then trouble getting Edison to finish the rest of the electrical. All the problems fade away with one look of the stadiums, where nothing was turned into something extraordinary.

“Old Trafford,” the stadium of the Manchester United Football Club, one of England’s most successful teams, is nicknamed the “Theatre of Dreams.” The 76,000 seats sit right over the field, and when there is a packed house, the entire experience of the fans singing and supporting their team through unfathomable cold weather makes the hair on the back of one’s neck stand up. Campus West will surely provide a similar spectacle and spirit, but with a better climate and view to top it off. Towering over the field will be a press box, outfitted with an elevator. Stadium seating will go along both sides of the press box. “The stands are like a stadium viewing area; there is not a bad seat in the house,” Winterburn happily reveals. A portion of the seats will sit on top of the dugout, much like an MLB field. Next to both dugouts will be the bullpens, and further down from the bullpens is more space for viewing. Winterburn says that even sitting along the right and left field lines will provide an excellent view.

A John Deere excavator breaks ground in November near the Campus West entrance. Campus West is located on the newly extended Wheeler Avenue, just south of Arrow Highway. / photo by Ryan Gann

A John Deere excavator breaks ground in November near the Campus West entrance. Campus West is located on the newly extended Wheeler Avenue, just south of Arrow Highway. / photo by Ryan Gann

Both fields are connected, interlinked by locker rooms with professional style athletic training facilities between them. Each team will have a locker room, plus rooms for team meetings and for watching game film. “These are the little things that are a big difference in having a quality facility,” Winterburn says. “It all creates a bigger atmosphere, a more festive atmosphere.” If an artist were charged to paint a baseball and softball field with an eye-pleasing, natural backdrop, she might not paint something as pretty as Campus West. The entire stadium is surrounded with pastoral sights. Behind the stands lies a hill, and behind the outfield fences, the San Gabriel Mountains stare down at the field. The complex cannot be seen from Arrow Highway; it is tucked between Arrow Highway and Brackett Airport. The seclusion of the complex adds to its aura, making it a sports sanctuary, a place that is truly special to visit.

Looking ahead at University expansion

Campus West is only the beginning of a larger expansion of the University. Dewey hopes that one day the entire University will be connected, meaning that all of the land between the main campus and Campus West, which sits approximately one-half mile from Founders Hall, will be entirely owned and used by the University. “We are growing to be the size of a Chapman [University]. We are moving out of the liberal arts size and into a more comprehensive University, and these kinds of expansions are key to that,” he says.

Those are future plans, but those living in the moment cheered heartily when University President Devorah Lieberman threw out the ceremonial first pitch for the softball field, and Luis Faura, chair of the Board of Trustees, threw out the first pitch for the baseball field. The University is playing ball again with home field advantage.