The Boys of Summer

Several years ago, Panthers football moved from the venerable C.W. Lewis Stadium in downtown Benton to a new venue adjacent the high school. While C.W. Lewis held a special place in the hearts and minds of decades of loyalists, the time had come to begin a new era of tradition.

Now the time has come for the boys of summer to step up to the plate.

Many people in Benton can remember a time when high school baseball in the city did not exist as part of the district sports program. Players joined the American Legion program with teams sponsored by local businesses.

But when the opportunity for athletes to earn a letter in baseball came, just as the football players had had for decades, the program started with games at Bernard Holland Park. In 2002, that all changed when Panther Field was opened next to the Cook Fieldhouse on the back edge of the high school campus.

To Mark Balisterri, head coach for the high school baseball team, moving home games to the campus grounds made sense. As a result, the team had a new home, one that has served the players well.

“Our current field is one of the top fields in the state,” says Balisterri. “It definitely needs some repair and updates, but all-in-all, it’s one of the finest.”

As the new sports complex began to take shape, the soccer, track and girls’ softball teams, in addition to football, each gained new environments on which to sharpen their skills.

But first, we must go back to 2007. A master plan for a new sports complex was developed, condensing the fields for all outdoor sports to one location. In 2009, the girls’ softball team needed a field and the first part of the sports complex was completed. Shortly afterward, the football stadium, which also is the location for soccer and track, was opened. An indoor training facility was also built. The area became one of the finest complexes in the state.

On May 14 of this year, the school board approved a plan to finally add the last piece of the sports puzzle by contracting with Nabholz Construction to build the baseball field.

“Our new field will set the bar for Arkansas high school baseball,” says Balisterri. “Everything about it is going to be top-notch. There won’t be another high school stadium that will come close.”

The stadium is currently under construction next to the girls’ softball field at the sports complex just off Algood Street, and is expected to be completed by the opening of the baseball season in 2019. It will feature a design that fits with that of the other fields, and will give the appearance that it has been there all along.

But this isn’t your ordinary diamond.

“Our facility will feature the newest and best turf,” says Balisterri. “We will have covered bleachers and dressing rooms in our dugouts. I feel that with the addition of the new baseball field, we will have one of the best sports complexes in the state, if not the best.”

The change from a grass field to one of sports turf has its perks.

Balisterri looks forward to the transition. “Having all turf is definitely the most interesting part of the new field. This gives us a big advantage by not losing any practice or games unless it is actually raining. I also feel it will be a place that not only our players and our athletic department will be proud of, but the whole community will be proud of this facility.”

Athletic Director Scott Neathery says that everything in the original school master plan for facilities is taking shape. In addition to the new baseball field, a new transportation facility is under construction. Also, the former baseball field will provide much needed space for growth of academic facilities on the main campus in the years to come.

The district faces the challenge of a growing city with limited land available upon which to prepare for the needs of students, a point District Superintendent Mike Skelton echoes. Other projects on the planning board are adding junior high classrooms, expanding the high school band building, remodeling the Cook Fieldhouse classroom facilities, and remodeling and expanding the district’s dining and kitchen spaces.

In an earlier interview, Neathery said, “It is very rewarding to see that our top-notch facilities mirror our exceptional teachers, students and patrons, who help produce a high-quality educational institution, as well as a high-quality athletic program in Benton.”

Skelton notes that the support of the Benton community is the key to this growth, and couldn’t happen without it. “It will aid us in carrying out the vision and the mission that have been set forth for meeting the needs of our students and community,” Skelton said.

When the field is finished, the “diamond” will find a new setting in the crown of Arkansas high school sports.