In softball, bad bounces are a player’s worst nightmare. A loose pebble could send a ground ball into an infielder’s face, or deflect a perfectly placed bunt out of fair territory.
When Loyola built its softball park in 1997, it was very traditionally surfaced with dirt infields and grass outfields. Throughout the last 10 years, the university has been converting the infield and the outfield to artificial turf. Last year, Loyola completed the process, which has taken the field’s unpredictability out of practices and games, according to head coach Jeff Tylka.
“The moment the temperature is good, we can go out [and practice],” said Tylka. “Even though it was 60 degrees in January, we wouldn’t have been able to do that last year even though it was still 60 degrees because it would have been mud.”
The infield is turf, but it mimics traditional dirt in the way the ball bounces. Thicker blades of “grass” slow the ball like it would on dirt. Because there is no dirt, the team can practice even after it rains. It also lessens the workload for the grounds crew, now that dealing with mud and uneven dirt consistencies are no longer an issue.
There is a noticeable change in the way the game is played when fields have artificial surfaces. Senior infielder Ashley Parenti said it took time to adjust to the change.
“The ball bounces a bit more and the hops are true,” said Parenti, a Berwyn, Illinois native. “I prefer dirt … but for a Chicago school, when you have turf it’s a lot easier to get on the field more … There aren’t really any bad hops.”
Tylka said one of the key traits of a good team is its versatility. For the softball team, this versatility includes the ability to compete on different playing surfaces. He said one of the more challenging things about the Missouri Valley Conference is the variety of fields teams have to play on. Venues feature a range of natural and artificial surfaces; some fields have a combination of both.
Wichita State University plays on a natural surface at their home field, C. Howard Wilkins Softball Complex. Laurie Derrico, the starting shortstop for the Shockers, said in many ways she likes the change of pace a field like Loyola’s provides.
“I think [playing at Loyola] is easier,” said the sophomore. “I liked it because I didn’t have to worry about playing the hops … I love playing on dirt … but it does make it so much easier on the infielders … you know what’s going to happen.”
Whether or not one type of surface is better than another is up for debate.
Tylka said he enjoys the variety. Constantly changing playing surfaces forces his team to play with focus. But, if he was pressed to choose, he said he wouldn’t change a thing about Loyola’s home field.
“I prefer the turf,” Tylka said. “It keeps everything a little more consistent … It’s tough when you win or lose a game on a bad hop, or there’s a divot the pitcher has to deal with. A lot of times in the Valley … you get so many grooves and everything else from sliding and people digging in the batter’s box … Our field stays consistent.”
While there may be no surprise bumps on the field, the softball team’s season is in a bump of its own. The Ramblers are 1-11 in conference play since a program-best 14-game winning streak to start the season. The team begins a nine-game home stand with a match against Northwestern University April 12.