CHURCH HILL — It’s been a long road getting there. On Monday Volunteer High School celebrated the completion of a new football field playing surface that now rivals any high school athletic field in Tennessee.

Four months ago it looked more like a minefield than an athletic playing surface as attempts to repair ongoing drainage damage were hampered by record rainfall and a work stoppage caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

The subsequent transformation can be attributed to a controversial decision on the part of the Hawkins County Board of Education and County Commission this past June to allocated $1.25 million to replace grass turf at Volunteer and Cherokee’s football fields with artificial turf.

Cherokee’s new field will be installed after the 2020 seasons are completed.

On Monday administrators, coaches and students came together with the community to celebrate the completion of Volunteer’s new field and to thank everyone who made the improvement possible.

The newly installed artificial surface will get its first official workout on Tuesday evening when the girls soccer team hosts Greeneville High School.

But the main event is Friday evening when Volunteer football is set to host cross-county rival Cherokee High School in the annual Battle of Hawkins County.

“A playing surface that is world class”

VHS athletic director Jeremy Bailey noted during Monday’s ceremony that history almost repeated itself to the detriment of current student athletes.

In 1980 when construction of Volunteer High School was completed, the sports fields weren’t ready in time for that first season, and the first VHS football home games took place at Church Hill Middle School.

Forty years later the old VHS football field was deemed unsafe for use, and student athletes faced the prospect this summer of either having no home games for the 2020 season or playing on the nearby middle school field.

“Administrators, coaches, parents, players and community members formed a unity, developed a plan, executed that plan and provided the students at Volunteer a playing surface that is world class, which they deserve,” Bailey said. “In years past maybe this project would have gotten shoved to the side or shut down all together, and Volunteer students would just have to deal with it.”

Bailey added, “Not this time. With new administration, new coaches and a new belief in our students and the success they will have in life, Volunteer athletes will not have to repeat history in 2020.”

Sturgill: The new field represents hope

Principal Greg Sturgill thanked several people and entities that made the new field possible including Director of Schools Matt Hixson, the Hawkins County Commission and Board of Education, maintenance director Shannon Glass, Volunteer staff members, community volunteers, athletic director Bailey, the touchdown club, students, the taxpayers, “and all who worked tirelessly to get the field in the shape that it’s in today.”

The new field represents hope, Sturgill noted.

“Hundreds of seniors will walk across the field to receive the diploma they worked so hard to earn and will open so many doors for their future,” Sturgill said. “Wins and celebrations must return, but hope must also be present. Hope must always be our guiding force when times are tough. Hope often needs to be met with hard work, dedication and sacrifice.”

“I’d just like to thank everybody who got this for us”

Among the speakers for Monday’s ceremony was varsity football head coach Jesse McMillan, who said he is extremely grateful for the new field. He admitted that two years ago when he and assistant coach Josh Castle began pushing for artificial turf they thought it was a “pipe dream”.

“Our kids were excited to get on it today, and I’m more excited for having it for practice considering all the days we’ve missed due to a muddy practice field the last couple of years,” McMillan said. “Thanks to everybody who was involved in this. From what little I know about it there was a bunch of stuff that went on, and lots of hard work to get this thing pushed forward for our kids.”

McMillan also introduced senior team captain Braden Allen who said, “I’d just like to thank everybody who got this for us.”

“Finally get a home game after eight away games”

Soccer coach Jeff Lukens said the field will change the future of athletic programs at VHS.

“Getting rained out will be a thing of the past, and less mowing and lining, and more coaching,” Lukens said. “We’re super proud to be out here and play on the field tomorrow (Tuesday) night.”

Lukens introduced senior soccer captain Mackenzie Smith who expressed gratitude for the new field on behalf of her teammates.

“I know we’re all just grateful to finally get a home game after eight away games, and we’re just excited for the future,” Smith said.

“Embrace this opportunity to use this masterpiece”

Hawkins County BOE Chairman Chris Christian encouraged students and student athletes to make the most out of the opportunities that they have been given. He said they have no excuse now for failing to perform because they now have a field second to none.

“I’m asking that you students embrace this opportunity to use this masterpiece to grow unity not only at this school, but our entire system,” Christian said. “Be the best you can be, academically, athletically and as a person. Let’s be proud of what we’ve got. Let’s not waste the opportunities.”