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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Highlands students, Fort Thomas community looks to benefit from facility improvements

PHOTO: G. Michael Graham. The new Highlands Field House has already been beneficial to the baseball and softball teams in the inclement weather.
It has been said many teams throughout the history of the Fort Thomas Independent School District.

The Highlands athletic teams do well with not the best of facilities. But things will look a lot brighter in that regard when the projects with the high school gym, fitness center and football field conclude along with the rise of the new field house in Death Valley. The new field house resides just behind the old softball field that has been replaced with a parking lot. FTISD Director of Operations Jerry Wissman said the projects will benefit the entire student body and not just the athletic teams.

The Highlands baseball and softball teams have already reaped some reward with the field house. They started practicing Feb. 15 in not the ideal weather situation. Snow covered the ground in February on various days.

"We have been able to do more than we ever have while being stuck inside after Feb. 15," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Baseball Coach. "We went from a small room with one batting cage to a turf area with two batting cages that we sometimes split into four cages. Our kids are getting at least two times more swings than in any year in the past. Our infielders have seen more ground balls than any year in the past. It's a fantastic facility that our administration spent a lot of time and money to allow the student-athletes at Highlands prepare for our season."

The field house consists of an indoor turf area, dance classroom and another weight room. There is also a maintenance garage located in it that will be the home of the district maintenance staff along with the vehicles, equipment and tools, Wissman said.

Current Highlands Director of Athletics Dale Mueller and Wissman have been showing people around the facility. Mueller gave information on how to use it to the Color Guard instructor. Mueller noted about 60 players were in the weight room, 40 baseball players were using the turf and the middle school dance team occupied the dance room during that time.

"Cat Watson, our middle school dance team coach, was excited that the girls could watch themselves as they practice with the mirrors," Mueller said. "Most of our teams are looking for ways to schedule and use it. We are throwing and hitting balls, twirling flags, dancing, lifting weights, and getting faster and more athletic. The new field house is having a great, positive effect on our players and teams."

The 23-time state champion Highlands football team worked out in the small weight room for years. The Bluebirds have even worked out in the locker rooms in the offseason. Head Coach Brian Weinrich said the team will get a lot more done in the new field house.

"We have not even begun to tap into the full potential of the field house," Weinrich said. "We have only been in it for a few weeks so it is still a learning curve. With track and baseball in full swing, we have only had about 50 guys each at our workouts so we are still not sure how it will work with all 100 guys here."

Other teams have not started to use the field house yet. One is the girls soccer team because Head Coach Brian Wiefering said most of the girls are playing club soccer and most of those teams practice three to four days per week and play in one to four regular season or tournament games per weekend.

"I don't want the girls overtraining and getting injured, so as of now, I have stayed clear," Wiefering said. "We have decided to make (the field house) available one to two days a week, which I think will make good supplemental training for some of the girls that are not playing on top club teams who are not getting six to seven days a week of soccer already. It's an absolutely beautiful facility that will come in great use, especially after spring season for our summer strength training and conditioning."

The project also changed the old practice gym into a fitness center used by staff, students and the community in addition to the athletic teams. Wissman also said it made another room for the use of the school's medical staff and made improvements to the locker room used by the fitness center members and physical education students.

Wissman said the projected cost filed with the Kentucky Department of Education was $3,345,000. He mentioned its funding came via a combination of local bond sales through the Facility Support Program of Kentucky (FSPK), the FTIS general operating fund and donations from the Fort Thomas Education Foundation. Wissman added that FTIS partnered with Saint Elizabeth's Healthcare and Commonwealth Orthopedic. The two organizations contributed $175,000 over five years that was used to buy the equipment for the fitness center and field house.

The high school gym is also undergoing some work. The gym has been known to get hot when a large crowd comes to basketball games, especially when Newport Central Catholic comes to town.

"(The new field house) is going to be great," said Jaime Walz-Richey, Highlands Girls Basketball Head Coach. "There are other sports teams we have to work with in the offseason. I think the gym will mostly be used for the basketball teams. That will be nice for the workouts that (Highlands Boys Basketball Head Coach) Kevin (Listerman) and I do for our programs."

The football field has had turf since 2002. It is being replaced in addition to other improvements.

"We are replacing all of the concrete and blacktop in the end zones, improving the field drainage, replacing all of the fencing at the facility and improving the electrical and technological infrastructure of the facility," Wissman said. "We are also improving access for those with disabilities to the Fitness Center by adding additional ramping into that facility."

Wissman said the recommendation to replace the turf came from the company the district hired to do annual maintenance. The company gives the district semi-annual reports and recently said the turf began to wear.

"When you have as many programs and teams that use the facility, you want to replace the surface when you get indications that the surface is beginning to show these signs of wear," Wissman said. "You would much rather replace this type of surface a year or two too early rather than a year or two too late."

The Tower Park soccer field also had turf installed recently in 2012. That made for a smoother playing field than the old, bumpy grass.

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