If the Niskayuna track and field team gets the OK to host its annual Warrior Classic and some Suburban Council dual meets this spring season, it will not do so due to the deteriorating condition of its track, and has plans to use Schenectady’s nearby facility instead.
That was the plan last season, too, before the campaign was erased because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t think our track has been touched in the last 15 years. It’s supposed to be done every seven or eight years. That’s two cycles,” Niskayuna track and cross country coach Jason DeRocco said. “In a lot of places, blacktop shows through. If we host live duals, we’ll go to Schenectady. If we do it virtual, we will not be able to use lane one for anything.”
The high school’s football field that the track surrounds, and its baseball field that’s just a hop, skip and jump away, could use a makeover, too, according to the coaches that lead student-athletes on them.
“If you look at the Class AA schools, we’re last out of all of them,” Niskayuna baseball coach Chris Bianchi said. “Our backstop is 60 years old. The dugouts are not in good shape. The fences are coming up. At field level, it looks like rolling waves of earth. The field is in need of an upgrade.”
A solution could be coming.
The Niskayuna school board in December approved plans for a pair of capital project propositions to go up for voter approval Feb. 9, with the first including significant structural work on all of the district’s schools.
The first project, though, would also include replacing the old track with a new eight-lane oval with steeplechase trappings, and expand the size of the infield to accommodate field hockey, lacrosse and soccer teams that currently play on non-lighted fields in front of the high school.
“The [football] field is too small for other teams to play on,” said Niskayuna football coach Brian Grastorf, who was a three-sport star at the school before graduating in 2006. “How many times have the other sports held their senior night at Union College?”
A Tweet from the Niskayuna’s nationally recognized boys’ lacrosse team that came out Thursday read: “We would love to host big lacrosse games at home instead of renting Union. Please support the Capital project on Feb 9th.”
The second project — which is contingent on passage of the first — would add more building improvements and address outdoor athletic facilities to a much greater extent. That project would call for new baseball and softball fields, additional upgrades on the track facility, upgrades on the bleachers, and could possibly include replacing the football field grass with a synthetic surface and installing a new multi-use turf field along Balltown Road.
Niskayuna softball currently practices and competes at Van Antwerp Middle School.
“Niskayuna offers a world-class educational experience,” said Albany High School special education teacher Joey DiPiazza, who has two youngsters in the Niskayuna school district that he calls home. “They can’t say they offer a world-class athletic experience. The majority of the athletic community knows this needs to be done. It’s long overdue.”
District officials divided the work into two separate propositions to enable the district to cover the $62.2 million cost of the first project with no new tax increase, while the $16.8 million second project would result in an increase estimated at $28 per year for a home valued at $100,000 over the first two years of the project.
While the capital project has not faced strong, vocal opposition, some community residents have raised concerns about the wisdom of initiating a major capital project in the midst of a pandemic and economic downturn, and as the state’s finances take an unprecedented hit. District officials have countered that the district’s facilities needs will only get worse and more costly if the community waits longer to invest in renovations.
“As a parent, teacher and coach, I can see that our district and our kids need the improvements,” said Bianchi, a Van Antwerp Middle School science teacher and father of two young children. “And now is the best time to do it. I don’t see it being cheaper at another time. We’ll pay more if we wait.”
“We understand the tax increase,” DiPiazza said. “I’m sure there are some people who are opposed to it, but do you know how bad the facilities really are?”
In an email to The Daily Gazette, Niskayuna superintendent Cosimo Tangorra wrote, “I wouldn’t speculate but would say that we have been out and about [in virtual meetings] talking to community members about the overall capital project proposal with the goal of making sure voters have as much information as possible. In terms of the athletic portion of it, we have been sharing our focus on making sure our facilities are safe and accessible for all members of our community to gather and student-athletes to grow as team members and individuals. This is consistent with feedback we have heard from our community over the years.”
The Saratoga and Albany school districts in recent years saw their outdoor athletic facilities upgraded through capital projects, and both of them included the on-campus installation of a turf field.
“Being part of the capital project at Albany High School, what I saw was amazing,” said DiPiazza, who coached baseball and football teams there in past years. “It changes the environment. It changes the culture. That project brought a community together.”
Bianchi can envision that happening at Niskayuna.
“We want our complex to be a hub for the community,” he said.
The first proposal would rework the traffic patterns at the district’s two middle schools. The second proposal would take those upgrades further, and provide for new traffic and parking patterns at the high school.
“This would bring our athletic facilities up to par with teams we compete against, and up to par for player safety and community safety,” Bianchi said of the second proposal. “For a minimal tax increase for only two years, it would address a lot of concerns.”
Grastorf said turf for the football field is among the many options being considered for the second project should it get voter approval.
“With turf, you step on it, and the energy level goes up,” he said. “The speed of the game goes up.”
There have been years when the Niskayuna baseball team was rarely on its home field outside of games.
“We’re on low land, and when it rains good, the infield can be out of commission for a week,” Bianchi said. “We’ve had years where we’ve had four or five practices on the field the whole season. When it gets wet, there’s no drainage.”
According to a capital project Q and A on the Niskayuna School District website: “The district completed its last substantial capital project in 2010, or 11 years ago. In that time, buildings and systems have continued to age. Additionally, that project was approved in 2006, with the planning taking place in the years before. That means that if the proposed work moves forward, it will be completed about two decades after that last significant project was planned. Much like maintaining a home, it’s difficult to get to everything that needs attention at once, so work needs to be spread out over time as the district plans to do.”
Staff writer Zachary Matson contributed to this report.