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SF Preps: Archbishop Riordan moves closer to sprawling renovation of football, baseball fields

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Mayer Family Field at Archbishop Riordan High School on Friday, Dec. 28, 2018. The school is beginning a $2.9 million renovation project on the joint football-baseball field, the first such renovation in 70 years. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

In the winter of 2012, after the conclusion of a 3-8 campaign which saw Archbishop Riordan lose the final eight games of the season, the program’s coaches, including Mark Mino and Steve Herrera, gathered in head coach Richard Sweeney’s office, off the breezeway outside of the school’s basketball gymnasium.

Assessing what it would take to make the program competitive again on a regular basis — as it was when Mino and Herrera played for the Crusaders — the group hit upon an idea: They needed to renovate the Crusaders’ football field, which had not undergone any significant refurbishment since it was installed.

“I’ve been the chair of this thing since the beginning, and we certainly had our starts and stops,” said Herrera, who, as the head coach of the freshmen team at the time, was a part of that meeting. The owner of a small dairy distribution business, Herrera gave the initial seed pledge of $100,000 to start the project, and have plans drawn up.

That money, plus $138,000 more from 128 gifts, has been kept ever since the initial drive was shelved in 2014. Thanks to generous gifts from the Mayer family and the Carl Gellert and Celia Berta Gellert Foundation, though, Riordan now hopes to break ground on a new, $2.9 million baseball/soccer/lacrosse/football facility by June of 2019, and have its new football stadium ready in time for the 2019 fall season — 70 years after the field was initially installed.

“It’s fair to say that this project has been 69 years in the making,” said Riordan’s director of development, John Ring, who filled a similar role at St. Ignatius for nearly 10 years before joining the Crusaders in 2015. “It’s the same field they put in in 1949, and while all the other fields have changed — and all the WCAL fields, I believe, are synthetic turf — ours was the same dirt you had half a century ago.”

While Sacred Heart Cathedral plays its home games at Kezar Stadium, the rest of the teams in the WCAL — including St. Ignatius — play on relatively new, artificial turf, on-campus surfaces. Riordan’s current facility is littered with bald spots, bounded by rusted goalposts and a crumbling press box. The baseball field features an uneven infield and what can only barely — and cynically — be called pitching mounds in the bullpens. The track itself — which, because of its rectangular shape, can only be used for sprints, and not longer races — is overgrown, and is also due for an update in what Ring referred to as Phase 2.

“The last three years, I think it was brought on in part by the drought, and then the field had irrigation issues, for sure,” Ring said. “The pipes underneath it had been compromised a little bit. It was spotty.”

The last time Archbishop Riordan hosted a varsity football game on campus, the Crusaders lost 42-21 to Archbishop Mitty, ending a dismal 1-9 season in 2014 that saw not a single home win. In fact, one has to go back to 2013 for the last game Riordan won at home, a 24-21 victory on Oct. 26 over rival Sacred Heart Cathedral. Since then, they’ve played most of their home games at City College — just down the street — or at Terra Nova.

Even before that, though, the biggest games the Crusaders played had long been played at Kezar Stadium, not at home on the 1.8-acre athletic complex nestled at the foot of Mt. Davidson.

“It’s almost seven decades old, and like anything else in life, you have to have some maintenance, and take care of it, or else it falls into disrepair,” said Herrera, chairman of the field committee who played offensive guard and nose guard for Riordan, graduating in 1976. “I think over time, the field has been used and we go from football season to baseball season to soccer, lacrosse, band marches out there, it’s constantly being used.”

The project, from the 2012 outset, was an ambitious one, involving not just the football field, but a new football press box, new goalposts, renovated football stands and a new baseball field, complete with stands of its own, along with dugouts and bullpens. Because of administrative turnover — the school president, at the time, Pat Daly, soon moved on, and two more presidents followed in the years since — the fundraising effort was marked by fits and starts, and finally sputtered to a halt in 2014.

“I knew they were working on the gym, but in truth, I thought the football field was a pipe dream,” said Riordan principal Timothy Reardon, who, after spending 25 years as an English teacher and basketball coach, succeeded Ring as Alumni Director at St. Ignatius, before following him to Riordan in July of 2017.

When Ring arrived on campus in 2015, the trustees steered him towards perhaps an easier fundraising win: Renovating the Crusaders’ home basketball court in the name of alumnus Kevin Restani, who led Riordan to two West Catholic Athletic League championships (1969-1970), then helped the University of San Francisco to three West Coast Athletic Conference titles before playing eight seasons in the NBA and eight more in Italy. The $800,000 renovation — which involved replacing the hardwood-on-bare-concrete floor with an NBA-quality cushion-core parquet — was completed in January of 2018.

“He was a big-time alumni for the school, very highly-respected by the Riordan community, and the San Francisco community, the Olympic Club and all that, so the focus turned from the field, towards the basketball court,” said Herrera, the president of the school’s board of trustees. “Updating that, and that was something that had a lot of support.”

Once that was accomplished, the groundwork had been laid for the bigger, more ambitious project: Giving Riordan football a proper home.

“It’s always been there,” Herrera said. “John Ring, when he came on board, with Andrew Currier, our new president, they were committed to resurrecting it and moving forward with it. That’s what we’ve done.”

The field fundraising campaign was re-launched in February of 2018, and in 10 months, an additional $2.6 million — raised through an additional 1,359 donations — was added to the original $238,000 (plus some modest interest). Riordan held luncheon events with San Francisco Giants great Will Clark and former San Francisco 49ers executive Carmen Policy to raise funds toward the cause.

Donations came from alumni from each of the City’s Catholic schools, as well as all parishes throughout the City. The three Mayer brothers — Mike (class of 1971), Steve (‘72) and Tim (‘74) — donated $500,000 to the cause. Tim played safety for the Crusaders while Herrera played on the lines, and Steve played defensive end. The brothers’ uncle, Paul Mayer, graduated in 1962. The new football field will be known as the Mayer Family Field.

“They were so committed to getting this done that they gave the project a half million, so that gave the project some life,” Ring said.

In early December, the Carl Gellert and Celia Berta Gellert Foundation brought the project home with a $750,000 grant in December, hence the complex’s overarching name: The Carl Gellert and Celia Berta Gellert Athletic Complex.

“This is one of the biggest gifts they’ve made in the history of the foundation, and certainly for an athletic complex,” Ring said.

The idea, Ring said, is to find a firm that has done multiple, successful high school and college field turf installations. Four contracting firms have been engaged to take on the site’s unique challenges. Similar to Oakland High School and Berkeley-St. Mary’s, the area involved will include both football and baseball facilities. Like St. Mary’s, the baseball field will be all-turf, and permanent yard lines will overlap the infield. While the focus will be on what’s inside the track — the fields and baseball dugouts, bullpens and stands — the football stands and press box will also get a makeover.

A brand new scoreboard for both baseball and football has already been installed, named after the late Martin Wassmer, a 1984 graduate who played baseball at Riordan, and remained a strong supporter of the baseball program after graduation.

“Updating it and renovating it and bringing it up to date with some good field turf is going to change things for so many different extracurricular pursuits at the school, it’s going to be a wonderful thing,” Herrera said. “The goal is for it to be the home field for all levels of football, baseball, lacrosse, track and field.”

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