By Al Mattei


The 2003 Garden State Games field hockey event had a different air to them than previous iterations.

Long since spun off from a central organization that had become bankrupt, the weekend tournament moved in 2003 to a new facility, one which is unique in the state, if not the country.

The location of the games was at Viking Stadium on the campus of Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, N.J. What had been a grass soccer pitch, home of a prominent community-college soccer program and two United Soccer League teams, had become a 130-yard by 90-yard swatch of artificial grass.

"We had done a feasability study to put a football team in," says MCCC athletic director John Simone. "Obviously, with the budget situation and with other considerations, we couldn't put football in. But we learned about new field surfaces."

The pitch, made under the brand name AstroPlay, is a long-strand variety with an underpiling of cushiony black rubber bits. A hard sweep of the surface yields a shower of black rubber when a hockey ball is struck.

What is important to know is that Mercer County Community College had not seen a field hockey game since the 1970s. furthermore, when the field was built in early 2003, there was exactly one community-college field hockey club in the United States.

Why build an artificial grass surface if there is no field hockey team at the college? The reasons go far beyond field hockey or soccer.

You see, Mercer County Community College's athletic facilities abut Mercer County Park, a multi-acre spread which has become surrounded by suburban development where there was only farmland in the early 1980s. The park has limited expansion capability, and the demand for soccer facilities in the wake of an increase in participation in the sport has resulted in the repurposing of some fields, such as one which had been dedicated to cricket.

"Any school district which is landlocked -- which most are now -- you really don't have a lot of choices to expand," Simone says. "If you want to play field hockey, soccer, lacrosse, and football, you can't build four fields. Multi-use fields are a really hot item across the country."

The field at Viking Stadium is also going to serve as a stream of revenue for the college and the county, as more and more games can be played there over the course of a year.

"We were restricted to 16 events per season because of wear and tear on the field," Simone says. "If we had an unforeseen event, such as playing soccer in a blizzard, your field is done for the rest of the year."

No longer.

"We've had 30 events from May 1 to Sept. 1, and that includes summer camps, the Wildcats (W-League soccer team), the Barons (D-3 Pro League soccer team), and rentals," Simone says.

The presence of the new field also means that scholastic field hockey and soccer games can be played at the college to give game officials a chance to do more than one varsity contest a day.

And the lights at Viking Stadium could also allow the AstroPlay surface to be used deep into the evening or the early morning.

"There's so much demand for recreation that you could see an early-morning or late-night league," Simone says. "Not that we're in the business of having a midnight league, but if you could light a turf field away from houses, you could have something."

Viking Stadium is serving as the host of the 2003 Mercer County Tournament field hockey final after a three-year absence. There are also future plans for attracting the junior-college national championship soccer tournament as well as serving as a host for any state field hockey sectional final or state semifinal that needs a foul-weather site.

And if the field is used for as many events as was the case the first three months, the investment could pay off sooner than anyone expected.