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Martin Van Buren HS gets new turf for athletic fields

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Administrators, teachers and students at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village celebrated the opening of the school's new athletic fields Monday morning following nearly nine months of renovation by the non-profit group Take the Field.

"The administration of Martin Van Buren High School want to sincerely thank all the members of Take the Field who have worked so diligently to complete this magnificent project," Principal Marilyn Shevell said during the rededication ceremonies. "We hope to have many wonderful years of service on our new field."

The new field, which serves for both football and soccer, features plastic blades of grass on top of a granular surface composed of pebble-sized rubber pellets. The surface requires none of the trimming and planting of natural grass, yet it is also soft enough to yield beneath the force of a tumbling running back or a charging striker.

The brilliant green field, transected by bright white yard lines and decorated with the letters M, V and B at the midpoint, is surrounded by a new 400-meter, six-lane running track made from layers of bright orange rubber laid on top of asphalt.

There is also a new regulation softball field bordering Hillside Avenue.

"They did a wonderful job," Shevell said, recalling the 60-year-worn and shoddy fields that were in place when she started as principal nearly two years ago. "It wasn't even level."

Glen Rasmussen, the assistant principal for security, called the improvements a miracle.

The $2.8 million project was undertaken by Take the Field, a non-profit organization founded by Anthony Kiser, Richard Kahan and Robert Tisch, owner of the New York Giants. The organization's goal is to renovate the athletic facilities of every city high school. So far, 32 projects have been completed.

"No more excuses," Kahan joked with the roughly 300 student athletes who attended the rededication ceremonies. "You got to start winning. If you're not winning already, start winning."

He then asked track captain Ezekiel Akinyemi, an 18-year-old senior, to test out the new track by running an inaugural lap.

"It was nice," Akinyemi said after the ceremonies, although he admitted he had already run on a virtually identical facility at Benjamin Cardozo High School in Bayside. The old track, he recalled, "was dirt and gravel. If you fell, it hurt."

Akinyemi and Katelyn Christensen, 17, were honored as student athletes of the year for 2002.

Perhaps nobody was more excited about the new fields than the groundskeeper, Willy McKinley. After 32 years of caring for Martin Van Buren's fields, McKinley could finally stop worrying about the difficulties of grooming its battered center spot.

"We tried to get grass to grow," he said. "It was a waste of time. There was no soil there. ... Now we don't have to worry about the bald spot."

Rain or flooding are also no longer concerns. Water seeps through the rubber pellets and is collected by a drainage system below.

McKinley's new duties include driving a golf-cart-sized groomer over the plastic grass to keep it standing straight up and uniform. Asked if the new fields presented a challenge for him, McKinley bristled.

"Like a barber," he said of himself. "They can cut any kind of hair."

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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