Contractors and volunteers have been pitching in day and night over the past two weeks to put the finishing touches on the field behind Sonora Dome so it can be ready in time for the Wildcats’ season-opener against Bret Harte on Thursday.
The ongoing project, which had its initial phase completed in October 2010, aims to give the Wildcats their first official home softball field, which is located off Barretta Street on the Cassina High School campus.
Until now, Wildcat softball teams have practiced and played games mostly on a rented field at Standard Park Sports Complex.
The initial phase of the project in 2010 involved hauling in materials and moving earth, while the current phase that started last year has seen crews replacing the field’s irrigation system, fencing, installing new dugouts and more.
Njirich and Sons, a local excavation and grading company, was contracted to do the bulk of the construction work, which over the past week has included improvements to the infield.
Meanwhile, volunteers like Rod Ditler, who works for Plum Construction, a supporter of the project, have been getting off from their regular jobs and turning on the field lights at night to lend a hand.
Ditler and fellow volunteers Steve Speer and Al Bergamaschi, who all either had or have daughters playing softball at Sonora, have completed the grading, sprinkler system, fencing and concrete work at the field. They hauled in 260 clay bricks and 30 bags of clay Tuesday afternoon to finish installing the batter’s box area and pitcher’s mound.
“The school just needed a softball field and the opportunity to do something for the community is cool,” said Ditler. “That was a no-brainer for us to jump in and help with the project.”
The renovation was made possible in part thanks to a $160,000 Major League Baseball grant for work done earlier this year and $50,000 through the Sonora Area Foundation to complete it.
Grant money for the the project was obtained by the Youth Sports Foundation of Tuolumne County, which has spent the past 14 years striving to provide better sports facilities for young athletes in the area.
Jim Roeber, former principal of Alternative Education at Cassina High School, has played a minor role over the years in getting the field renovated and praised Youth Sports Foundation President Dave Crocker for spearheading the project.
“He (Crocker) has coordinated this project from beginning to end, with Steve Njirich right there at his side,” said Roeber. “The Dome Field is the center of Sonora. It’s a great field that so many people have been playing on for the past 70 years, and to see it brought back and turned into something special is a gift to the community. It’s been an incredible effort by the YSF with support from many, many local service clubs.”
Community groups including the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, the Sonora Rotary Club, the Lions Club, Chicken Ranch Casino and Woods Creek Little League have shown support in various ways, such as planting trees along the outer fence or donating money for new dugout benches.
Support has also come from outside the local community, according Steve Njirich, owner of Njirich and Sons.
“We’re grading contractors, so putting in a big lawn is maybe a little bit above the average challenge, but we were able to call people from the valley who could help us with things like determining the right soil mixture,” said Njirich. “We never encountered a single person outside of the county that didn’t want to help when they heard what we were doing.”
Njirich said the contract covered wages for his crew while equipment was donated. He said scheduling issues and the storm earlier this month led to the slight delay in finishing the project, which was originally scheduled for completion roughly a month ago.
Sonora Wildcat softball head coach Dena Canaday has been forced to transport her players via bus out to Standard Park each day for practice while work on the project continues. She said they are scheduled to have their first practice at their new home field today.
“Our entire program is beside ourselves on how grateful we are to the community for pitching in,” Canaday said. “The Youth Sports Foundation along with Steve Njirich and his company have gone over and above for our girls.”
She said Little League has booked up most of the fields in the county which has caused her Wildcats to practice in some unlikely venues.
“We have been everywhere from Standard to the football field at Sonora High School — and even the wrestling room,” she said. “It’s hard to build a program when you don’t have the facility to play and practice at, and our girls have been amazing to be there and hold their heads up high. But now it’s here, and we get to be a part of it.”