WABASH — A sunny Friday morning at Northfield High School was a welcome sight for Blake Marschand and Co.
Marschand and his team had spent more than two months, and the better part of their summer, at Hamilton Heights High School, preparing the football stadium for turf installation.
Rain extended the project by weeks. The days of moving and leveling literal tons of stone dragged on and on.
But on the last Friday in July, they were back to doing what they do best: making area ball fields shine.
The crew was at Northfield’s softball diamond for a laser grade project — the premier service of Marschand’s Athletic Field Services.
Based in Kokomo, Marshall’s Athletic Field Services maintains and builds athletic fields.
For a baseball or softball field, laser grading is the application of new infield dirt spread so that surface water drains to the edge of the field. A transit and GPS equipment makes a laser grade project possible.
A tractor pulls a level box, which distributes dirt evenly, according to preferred specifications. For the Northfield softball field, it was 2 inches of infield dirt and a .2% conical grade. It takes about 50 tons of dirt to apply one inch on an infield, square footage depending.
A conical grade can be thought of as a cone. There is a highest point and the field slopes downward from there.
The transit, positioned at the pitching rubber, is linked to the tractor and level box, ensuring the consistency of the grade while dirt is spread around the infield.
But not just any dirt. It’s top-of-the-line dirt. Dirt so good the pros use it.
Marschand uses DuraEdge, an infield mix of clay, sand and silt. Infield mixes offered by DuraEdge vary in their ratio of ingredients.
It’s the type of dirt that only leaves cleat marks after a game. DuraEdge fields do not turn to dust in the summer heat, nor do they become rock hard. They also don’t turn into mud pits after a rain.
The brand is used by Major League Baseball teams and some of the top college programs in the nation.
‘From a mess to pristine’
Dan Armstrong, the former Northwestern athletic director, started what is now Marshall’s Athletic Field Services. Armstrong sold his business, Sports Field Services, to Marschand in 2008.
“It was an interest for me,” Marschand said. “I don’t mind doing this kind of work.”
Marschand worked at Duke Energy for a few years, repairing athletic fields on the side before going full time.
“I don’t want to be in an office, I want to be outside” he said. “You look back at it and say, ‘I get to build ball diamonds for a living.’ That’s pretty cool.”
That Marschand ended up working on ball fields for a living shouldn’t come as a surprise. He grew up on a baseball field with his dad, Greg Marschand, the longtime Lewis Cass High School baseball coach.
“Been on a field since I could walk,” the younger Marschand said.
Marschand’s Athletic Field Services works with almost all area schools, including Kokomo, Western and Taylor. While natural surfaces are Marschand’s specialty, there’s also business in artificial turf, such as the project at Hamilton Heights, for which his business was subcontracted for.
The business works on all types of fields. “From a mess to pristine,” is how Marschand puts it.
Marschand and his crew are also behind one of the jewels of Kokomo — CFD Investment Stadium at Highland Park. They maintain the stadium that hosts high school and American Legion baseball games.
A rainy morning in April demonstrated what a well-maintained field with DuraEdge infield mix can do. Walking across the infield at Highland Park, Marschand showed how the dirt did not stick to his shoes from him, left almost no footprints, the surface was still solid and there were no puddles.
Had it not rained the rest of the day, the field would have been playable that afternoon.
“It’s pretty neat when you walk through the gate and see it shining,” Marschand said.
The job has taken Marschand to the upper echelons of sport, including Victory Field in Indianapolis, where his crew laser graded the infield, as well as Notre Dame and Purdue University. Wrigley Field is his dream job.
“Blake Marschand has taken that business to world class,” Armstrong said. “I’m proud of Blake.”
For ballplayers by ballplayers
Marschand doesn’t do any formal marketing, yet he’s found no shortage of business. Word of mouth and Twitter net plenty of clients. His crew of him is currently at Tri-West High School, building new baseball and softball fields.
“I have a huge problem saying no to people,” Marschand said. “I hate to make people wait. You’re trying to make everyone happy. That’s probably the hardest part of it.”
The weather can be your worst enemy in trying to get every project done, he said.
Marschand’s team is small, but it’s made up of guys who value the work they do.
No surprise, they’re all former ballplayers, including Marschand, whose college baseball career took him to Hawaii Pacific University.
Marschand likes it that way. Athletes know about hard work. Baseball players appreciate a well-kept field.
Guys like Emitt Zimmerman, at Carroll grad. He’s spent a few summers with Marschand, and he ran the tractor at Northfield.
“I wish someone would have done this to my field (in high school),” Zimmerman said. “You get to do it for other kids. It’s kinda sweet.”
That’s ultimately what makes the long days, the hot sun, the early mornings and late nights worth it. When a job is completed, one sees the result of their hard work. When a school raves about their new-look ball diamond? Even better.
“That’s what you want to hear, that’s the good stuff,” Marschand said. “It’s pretty cool, the reaction from before and after.”
A job well done
The Northfield project was a fairly easy one, despite the softball field being flat. A flat field can make it difficult to find an existing grade to work off of.
Sometimes there’s more than one. One side of a field might have one grade, the other side a completely different one. The challenge is blending them together while ensuring water drains away from the field, to the edges or sidelines.
“It can be a drag when we go to a field with existing grade,” Marschand said. “There’s been times I’ve scratched my head for hours trying to get grades to match up.”
Marschand then pulled out a picture of a ball diamond with scribbles, arrows and numbers on it. The diagram was of the Northfield softball field. The markings indicated the grade.
The first thing Marschand does is determine the slope of the field using GPS. This is called “shooting the edges.”
The next step is breaking up the infield. A multi-purpose riding machine does this job. New dirt and old dirt need to be mixed together, Marschand explained, or the new stuff will slide off after a rain.
The majority of the day was spent bringing and grading the infield mix, along with a quick lunch break. Once the last bit of DuraEdge had been spread, the field was manicured with a mat drag — the type grounds crews use between innings of an MLB game.
Marschand and Zimmerman raked around the field’s edge. Called “feathering,” it is a finishing touch that makes for a seamless transition from dirt to grass.
“This job will teach you how to handle a rake,” Zimmerman said. “It’s so satisfying to feather an edge.”
The crew wrapped up around 3 pm, cutting the day short. A conditioner still needed to be applied to the field — it will help soak up moisture while also preventing the field from drying out — but that could wait until Monday.
Marschand let his guys go home early after logging 12-plus-hour days earlier in the week to finish the Hamilton Heights job.
Before leaving, he snapped a picture of the field and posted it on Twitter. Sometimes, there’s no better advertisement than a job well done.