The Team Behind the Raptors
The Team Behind the Raptors
By: Colton Strickler, MLR Correspondent
One of the beautiful things about rugby is its simplicity.
As long as you have a few friends, a ball, and a pitch, you have a game of rugby on your hands.
While a ball and some friends might not be hard to come by, finding a suitable pitch that will be able to handle the brutality that is a rugby match can be a bit more difficult to find. Fortunately for Major League Rugby’s runner-up Glendale Raptors, they have one of the best – if not the best – pitch in the United States: Infinity Park.
Infinity Park has seen plenty of high-profile teams roll through the suburb southeast of Denver since it opened in 2007, but one of the park’s best teams works behind the scenes. After their incredible inaugural season in the MLR, the Raptors deserve every bit love that they receive, but none of it would be possible without the help of the Glendale Public Works team.
When you tune in to watch the Raptors play rugby, you see a product that has been sharpened over the course of a week’s time. At the same time, you are also seeing the 25 to 40 hours of work that the Glendale Public Works team has put in as well.
It takes a village to keep the Kentucky Bluegrass-Perennial Ryegrass mix that is the pitch at Infinity Park in shape after 30 of some of the best rugby players in the United States tear it up for 80 minutes each week, so a village is what they’ve tried to assemble.
“Rugby is really tough on a field,” turf manager and utility worker Tyler Walker said of the difficulties that come along with taking care of a rugby pitch. “They leave huge divots and really beat up a field. So it’s always just keeping up with the wear from the competition on the field.”
The 10-man team, headed by public works director Josh Bertrand and field operations manager Jody Yonke, is rounded out by turf manager and utility worker Tyler Walker and maintenance workers Lance Barber, Patrick Bellich, Anthony Borja, Kevin Brown, Erik Romsdahl, Chris Roozing, and Noah Windschitl.
“Our department, public works, pretty much does everything,” Yonke, the 32-year veteran, said over the phone. “From streets to sewer. Everything. Everybody helps here. If we’ve got a big tournament, of course, we will send up whoever we can to do all the painting. Tyler does a lot of the fertilizing and aeration that we have to do. Whenever they need help, we’re just kind of all on-call to help out.”
One match a week is light work for the Public Works team. As Major League Rugby found it’s footing in its inaugural season, they relied on the trusty work of the Public Works team throughout the season. Between the exhibition period, the regular season and the semi-finals, Infinity Park withstood seven rugby matches during the inaugural season, several of which took place in Colorado’s unpredictable spring weather.
“It’s very difficult,” Walker said of the difficulties that Colorado’s crazy weather presents. “It’s very hot and dry summers and then it gets cold fast.”
“The weather has a lot to do with it,” Yonke said. “If we’ve got a frost out there, we can’t get out there until later on in the day. The ground starts getting hard, then we’ve got to deal with sprinklers. If the big snow comes in, we have to also remove all that. The way that the pitch is set up, there is one entrance where we can get equipment in. In all the years we’ve had to haul a lot of snow out of there into the police parking lot.”
On top of all of that, Infinity Park is home to men’s and women’s club programs in addition to an academy and a youth program. All of that wear and takes its toll on a pitch if not properly taken care of. Even for a turf veteran, the maintenance can be difficult to stay on top of.
“It’s different because Major League Rugby is really fresh and they’re kind of getting their base and there is just a lot of teams here,” Walker, a graduate of the University of Iowa’s turf management program said. “There is a lot more wear that goes on so it takes a lot more attention and focus to maintain the park than it took in Iowa.”
As one can imagine, accomplishing all of that while trying to make sure the match kicks off on time for the fans, players, and broadcast’s sake is not an easy task. While being punctual is certainly a priority of the Public Works team, there is nothing more important to the crew than making sure the players have a safe surface to compete on.
“The most important aspect of taking care of the field for us is a safe playing surface for the athletes,” Walker said. “I wouldn’t really say that there is an added pressure, but we always have that at the front of our mind and providing a safe playing surface always comes first.”
Growth requires some stability, and that’s exactly what Glendale’s Public Works team provides. As both the Glendale Raptors and Major League Rugby as a whole look to build off the success of the inaugural season and move into year two, it’s got to be comforting knowing that they’ll always have a safe place to play at Infinity Park.
Colton can be reached at [email protected]
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