Sacred Heart High School had big plans for the first game of the 2015 football season.
The Crusaders invited Columbia Academy to be the opponent in what Sacred Heart hoped would be the grand opening for its new football stadium off Bonhomie Road.
But those plans had to be changed because the stadium isn’t ready for occupancy just yet. Work continues on the Sacred Heart facilities project, and the football field won’t be ready for several weeks.
“Best-case scenario, we hope to be playing there around the fourth or fifth week of the season,” Sacred Heart athletic director Brian Kern said. “It’s going to depend on the weather.”
That could be a double-edged sword, as it was the weather last spring that delayed the project.
“It rained all of May and June, it seemed like every day,” Sacred Heart football coach Lonny Schraeder said.
“We were planning on actually being on the field in July. But it rained the whole spring — April, May and June — and it threw us off. To do what we had to do out there required big trucks, and you can’t drive big trucks in the mud.”
As it is, Sacred Heart will open its season on the road at Columbia Academy, and will open its home schedule Aug. 28 against West Lincoln at San Antonio Field, the old park near downtown Hattiesburg that has housed the Crusaders since the beginning of the school’s athletic program.
“I can’t tell you how good (the City of Hattiesburg has) been to us,” Schraeder said. “We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. This place has been home; we’re used to playing here, so it’s no big deal.”
The Sacred Heart football program began in 2009, and began playing a full schedule of region games in the Mississippi High School Activities Association in 2013.
“I go back to the start, when kids were having to bring all of their gear — football pads, helmets and jerseys — to school because Friendship Park, where we practiced had no locker room facilities,” Kern said.
“People don’t always understand how big a role the city played in the positive movement of our program. They have had as much to do with our progress as anyone.”
Of course, moving away from a city-owned facility to one of their own does have its drawbacks, Kern said.
“We’re going from having to do nothing, as far as maintenance goes, to taking care of our own facility,” he said. “So that’s going to be an adjustment.”
Kern said the school doesn’t want to rush the project, as there are several aspects of the construction that require time to do right.
“They’re putting up the lights right now,” he said. “The concessions building and our field house are pretty much complete. Everything at the field is coming together. The big thing now is coming in and laying the turf.”
When completed, the school will have a completely privately funded athletic complex that includes a new state-of-the-art baseball field.
“I’ve been out there, and it looks really nice,” Sacred Heart junior Owen Weatherell said. “It’s coming along nicely. They’re getting the lights up now, so the rest should be easy.
“I trust the people who are building it. We should be able to play on it midway through the season.”
Although there is some level of disappointment that the new field won’t be ready for the start of play, just knowing a new field is almost a reality is an attitude boost for the Crusaders.
“It’ll be nice to have a field of our own,” Crusader sophomore Hunter Garner said. “I’m a little bit disappointed that we’re not in it already, but it’s not something I’m going to worry about. We’re going to get done what we need to get done wherever we play.”
When the complex is complete, the school will have a new football/soccer field along with a new baseball stadium.
“I think we’re going to have the best-looking small-school baseball field in the state,” Kern said. “We’re no longer gypsies.”
In 2014, the San Antonio Foundation — named for the Hattiesburg Public School District-owned field where the Sacred Heart Crusaders first hosted their football games — reached an agreement to purchase about 20 acres of land in south Hattiesburg bounded by U.S. 11 and Bonhomie and WSF Tatum roads.
The first step was an agreement with Grace Temple Ministries, which sold about 16 acres of land to the foundation. Four more acres were secured from two other owners. Hattiesburg City Council approved zoning changes to the properties as well as a use-permit-on-review for shared and off-site parking with Grace Temple.
The San Antonio Foundation then secured lease agreements with Sacred Heart, Grace Temple and the Mississippi Youth Football Association to use the property for events.
Groundbreaking took place in May 2014, and much of the area was cleared of trees and brush.
In August 2014, the construction project received a major boost when one of the Gulf Coast’s three Naval Mobile Construction Battalion groups — more familiarly known as the Seabees — lent a hand, grading the land under a program known as Readiness Military Training.
The Readiness Military Training program offers civilian projects as an opportunity to train and acquire skills using the equipment that they may be required to use in a war zone for clearing areas to build airstrips, fortifications and barracks.
The Seabees stayed in Hattiesburg for more than a month before returning to the Coast for deployment.
Another group of Seabees returned to the site in December to resume the leveling and rough grading of the site.