Construction on fields one and three started in November when more than 30 North Middle School parents, teachers and students volunteered time to get the building project underway. Since then, club president Damon Hughes said the fields were 98 percent and 85 percent complete, respectively.
"There's not a lot of people that can actually builda ballfield in the middle of winter and pull it off in, what, three months," Hughes said. "So, it's been a blessing. We've had a lot of folks' sponsorship and donation of materials and donation of work to be able to get all of this stuff done."
Andrew Busie, three-year director for Eaton Ruritan and North Middle School baseball coach, said field three, which will be used for the school's baseball team along with youth league play, still needed gravel for a warning track, fencing down the left field side, netting behind home plate and sodding in front of the dugouts.
The NMS baseball team began practice Feb. 1, breaking up players into smaller groups for practice. Field 3 was used for infield practice on Thursday.
"Well, it's nice to have a field to call our own and to have use of it whenever we want to, especially with the facility to utilize all of the fields around here," Busie said. "You know, as a coach to have smaller groups and be able to utilize that, it's phenomenal. You can get more kids one-on-one attention."
Eaton Ruritan sought help from Loudon County Board of Education during the Jan. 9 meeting when supporters asked for an estimated $18,703 to help finish remaining parts of the baseball field.
Hughes said the club was able to afford "numerous" items because of the school board's backing, including netting behind home plate, poles to support the netting and infield dirt.
"It'll be great to have this facility up and running," Hughes said. "Of course, it'll look completely different by the end of summer as the grass comes on and everything. So the first — when we first get started in this season, it's still going to have some brown looks to it as far as the grass, and we've got some more stuff to get painted."
League play begins in April, and the middle school baseball team's first home game is expected to be March 24.
Once fields one and three are finished, Hughes said focus will be on the remaining ballfields to get ready for youth league play. Signups began Feb. 8 and went through Saturday. As of Friday, about 200 children have signed up, Hughes said.
"So, over last year I think there were 250 kids out here last year, so hopefully we'll have a lot more kids out here involved and their parents getting involved and hopefully some point get them enrolled into Eaton Ruritan as well and get them involved in some of the things we're going to do as a club," Hughes said.
Longtime club member and current one-year director Van Shaver said allowing the middle school teams to play at the ballpark will help the club garner attention.
"... It's not just going to be a place for entertainment, it's going to be a place for kids to actually learn the skills and understand the game," Hughes said. "So, as they go play at other places or as they go move on, it'll be a much easier transition for them."
Reworking the ballfields will be part of an ongoing project that Hughes said should last for five years. Plans are to continue a walkway around the ballpark, spanning about half a mile, add a basketball court and build a playground for families to enjoy, he said.
"It'll (playground) be brand new to the park," Hughes said. "A lot of parents that come, their kids play softball and baseball, they have younger kids that could utilize playground equipment and will help keep those kids active and makes it a little bit easier on the parents, too, especially if ... you've got multiple games or long practices and things. It gives the parents and the kids somewhere to go to entertain themselves."
Hughes said the playground and walkway could be finished within two years.
Funding will be provided through fundraisers, donations and possible grants, Hughes said. Both middle school teams held an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast fundraiser at the Highland Park Ruritan building.
As a means of fundraising, the club is currently allowing the community to purchase bricks for $50, engraving anything they wish to memorialize their involvement in the ballpark and adding something like "Go North Middle" or "Go Eaton Ruritan" to the bricks. Once 100-200 bricks have been purchased, Hughes said he would like to build a kiosk giving an overview of the ballpark. Funding goes toward the park's continuing renovations, he said.
Getting parents, children involved
Before new members were voted in, Shaver said he planned to move on from the club.
"In fact, we got a little afraid maybe it was just going to come to an end, but these new folks have come in, stepped up to the plate, and they seem to be really, really interested, and I mean they're really making some differences out there. It's looking great," Shaver said.
The club has been doing so well that it recently received a plaque for largest percentage increase in membership, Hughes said. The last time Eaton Ruritan received this award was in 1969, he said. The club's membership has jumped to 48 since October. Paperwork for corporate status was submitted a couple weeks ago, and Hughes said he expected to hear something soon. Eaton Ruritan will then file as a nonprofit, he said.
By allowing children to assist with revamping the ballpark, Hughes said the project will allow them to gain a sense of ownership.
"We hope to have a basketball court and places for the kids to come and play basketball and have fun, giving them a safe place for them to come enjoy themselves ...," Hughes said.
A focus will be placed on community outreach programs once construction is complete. Hughes said children serving lunch or dinner to veterans on Veteran's Day is a possibility, along with roadside cleanup programs and nursing home programs.
"That's one of the biggest things of having them (children) out here on a continuous basis as we're building this was so they have ownership in it, and it gives them pride and something they can look back at, or when they're older they can bring their kids here and say, 'Hey, I remember when that was being built. I helped do this project,'" Hughes said.