(PHOTO: New Albany baseball coach Curt Fowler stands on the second level of his team's indoor practice facility while the squad stretches. – Photo by Thomas Wells)
BY DALE A. LEONARD
NEW ALBANY – If practice makes perfect, the baseball and softball programs at New Albany are aimed in the right direction.
What began as idea presented by a retired educator and avid supporter almost one year ago is now a reality.
In January, coach Curt Fowler and his baseball squad christened The BullPen, a modern indoor practice facility.
Located on the site of the old baseball field at the renovated New Albany High School campus, the 100-by-50-foot infrastructure is adjacent to the home side of the football field.
“It's still a work in progress, but it's been a labor of love,” said Fowler, in his third season at New Albany. “It amazing the pride and level of support of the kids, the administrators, the teachers, the parents and the community as a whole.
“The kids played a big role and I enjoyed seeing the goodness of the kids. They're very respectful and they work hard. They practically gave up their entire Christmas break working here. They hauled lumber. They drove nails. The girls came in and painted. We'd work all day, take an hour off for lunch. It was cold in here, we didn't have heat. They just bundled up and got the job done.”
Les Sumner, whose grandson is a member of the team, approached Fowler at the conclusion of last season with the idea.
“Mr. Sumner came to me the day after we lost Game 3 of the North Half Championship series with Senatobia,” Fowler said. “Of course, we were still down about not making the state finals. He asked if we would be interested in having an indoor place to practice.”
Despite the loss, New Albany had just set a school mark for the most wins (24) in a season.
In Sumner's eyes, the time was right to proceed. The two went before the school board and received the necessary permission to locate the facility on campus.
After receiving the go-ahead, Sumner began visiting various businesses. His selling point was not about making donation, but rather an investment in the community.
“The community was very, very receptive to the idea,” Sumner said. “I didn't do it for my grandson, I went with it for the kids and the community. It was an investment in the future of New Albany.”
Within a matter of days, funds began trickling in. Sumner along with Tim and Ray Gafford finalized the plans for the inside of the building.
“Some people gave money, some offered their time and services,” Fowler said. “There's no way we could repay them.”
Sooner than expected
Ground broke on the facility in October with a projected completion date for the 2004 season. Cost was an estimated $65,000 to $80,000.
The willingness of the community, not only from a financial standpoint, but through equipment donations and – simply lending a hand – exceeded expectations.
“Through hard work and tremendous community support we completed the project and was able to hold our first practice on January 20,” Fowler said.
“Actually is was a Midnight Madness-type practice. The first day of practice according to the MHSAA was January 20. We got here that Sunday night after church and at 12 o'clock we hit for the first time in here. It was great because it was something the kids help build.”
The facility is equipped with upstairs coaches offices and locker rooms for both programs. Downstairs are bathroom facilities, laundry and storage rooms and a hallway designated for memorabilia of former players whose jerseys have been retired.
The flooring is not Astroturf, but an industrial-like carpet that has a true roll for the ball. The building has two 70×14 batting cages and 12 mobile screens for batting tee and soft toss work. It is also equipped with two indoor mounds, wooden plates, seven Iron Mike pitching machines, a state-of-the art sound system and a projection screen mounted from the ceiling.
“There are other places that have indoor facilities that may be fancier or more high-tech,” said Fowler. “But we will now have a foundation to where kids will have every opportunity to improve and enjoy the game.”