Arlington’s new artificial playing surface leaves just one grass field in Wesco

The growth in popularity of the spread offense among Snohomish County football teams in recent years wouldn’t have been possible if not for the evolution of the surfaces those teams play on.

In the late 1990s, most of the area’s high school teams ran and tackled on grass, a surface that dramatically wears down over the course of a season.

“If you would have come to a game at Everett Memorial Stadium 18 years ago, by week seven, eight and nine from hash mark to hash mark, it was mud,” said Jackson head coach Joel Vincent, who was an assistant coach in 1997. “There was no grass. When you get field conditions like that, you can be the best spread team on earth, and you can have the best athletes on earth, but you can’t run a spread offense on a field like that. You just can’t do it.”

The goal of a spread offense is to create space where skilled offensive players can utilize their speed and quickness, then get them the ball, usually via a quick pass.

A muddy field tends to neutralize a team’s speed.

And according to The Herald’s 1997 All-Area Defensive Player of the Year, Everett’s Corey Gunnerson, not only was the field at Everett Memorial muddy, it wasn’t even level.

“It used to be if you stood on one sideline you couldn’t see the other sideline because it had so much of an arch in it,” he said. “With the turf field, it’s flat and the grip is there. I think it levels it out a little more and allows for more speed.”

Grass fields started disappearing around the time this year’s seniors were born, but it’s taken their entire lifetimes for grass to become nearly extinct at Wesco stadiums. With Arlington’s switch to turf this fall, Stanwood remains the only school that plays its home games on a grass surface.

When offenses were run-dominant, playing on grass wasn’t a big issue because power and strength were arguably more important than speed.

The spread offense changed all that.

“The part that gets chewed up is between the hashes, which is where the ball is every time,” Gunnerson said. “When you’re running the old-school wing-T, it’s not as big of a deal because your quarterback is taking two steps and you’re handing the ball off, or you’re pitching it to the outside and you can get to the clean grass and actually get some speed.”

Teams that wanted to pass on chewed up grass surfaces had to improvise. Former Arlington quarterback Scott Faries, The Herald’s All-Area Offensive Player of the Year in 1997, recalls a late-season game at Stanwood on a rainy, muddy night where his team needed a big play.

“There was no place (to run) except one strip of grass which ran like 75 yards down the field,” Faries said. “We were on about (our own) 20-yard-line and my coach looked at me and said, ‘Go for it.’ So I looked at my wide receiver in the huddle and I said, ‘See that strip of grass. I want you to line up on that and we’re just going to run straight down (the strip of grass) because there is only mud everywhere else.’ That’s the only place you could get traction.”

The play resulted in a touchdown, Faries said.

Stanwood and whatever team it hosts for its home games are the only Wesco schools that have to contend with a muddy surface on Friday nights, but practice is another story. Jackson and Cascade, for example, both practice on grass fields.

“Our field at Jackson High School, by mid-October on, is difficult,” Vincent said. “There’s usually standing water, there’s mud, and we’re trying to practice our spread stuff. We do the best we can because we know on Friday that we’re going to get a good surface to run it, but it doesn’t mean that running practice is easy.”

Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronlommers and contact him at alommers@heraldnet.com.

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