Don Schillinger spent 29 years as the head football coach in Baker. He’s seen a lot of Montana football fields.
So when he says the new facilities at Baker and Laurel are the best under the Big Sky, you listen.
“Of course I’m a little partial now, but I think (Baker’s facility) is the best one right now,” said the retired coach, whose sole job now is acting as Baker’s superintendent. “Laurel’s one that I’ve been to. It’s very nice there, except the stands are bigger. I guess I like those two probably the best.”
For two stadiums so similar, there are striking differences between Baker’s complex, which was completed in 2012, and Laurel’s, which opened in 2009. The most notable difference is, of course, the sheer size. Baker seats approximately 750 fans, compared to the 4,000-plus Laurel can accommodate.
“When we decided to do this, we wanted to make it the best. We wanted it to be the top-notch, best stadium in the state of Montana,” Laurel football coach Mike Ludwig said. “So we put a high dollar amount ($3.5 million) on this stadium. We had enough money to go high end.”
Both communities elected to lay down artificial turf, upgrade their tracks and install new grandstands. They joined Sgt. Laverne Parrish Memorial Field in Ronan and Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium in Billings as the only Montana high school venues to stray from the traditional grass. Glendive will install turf in time for this season.
Though both Schillinger and Ludwig acknowledged that they like grass — Schillinger went as far to say “football probably should be played on” grass — installing turf was an easy decision. For Baker, it came out of necessity.
“Bad soil, bad water. I mean, some years we had grass, some years we didn’t,” Schillinger said. “And to be honest, it was kind of an embarrassment actually. We had pretty good teams, but bad fields and nobody cared to come.”
That’s no longer an issue for the Spartans, who earned the “Beasts of the East” moniker during Schillinger’s reign when they won four Class B state titles from 1999 to 2004.
The field, decorated with Baker’s logo at the 50-yard line, runs north-south. The bleachers sit on the west sideline between the field and the school. An overhang provides shade for the fans in the stands, who can climb above the seats to the concession area on a concrete mall.
The scoreboard is located on the opposite sideline with residential Baker in the background. The program’s numerous conference championships, including 14 straight from 1998-2011, and six state championships are touted on signs beneath the scoreboard.
“We’ve had some good teams for quite a period of time and we were going to have some good teams. Therefore, the community said, ‘Hey, it’s time to get a nice stadium,’” Schillinger said. “We had a committee of community members and board members and whatever. All were for it, so the project came.”
The beginnings of the Laurel Sports Complex weren’t quite so resolute. The community initially balked at the price tag. Ludwig said the stadium may never have been built if not for Tim Casey, who went to coaches and community members as the “driving force” to get the project off the ground.
Once it did, the community agreed to the state-of-the-art design.
From the track and turf, which has a 50-50 rubber-sand infill as opposed to a 100 percent rubber infill to keep the surface cooler, to the grandstands to the scoreboard, to the largest high school video screen in the state until Glendive’s new facility is completed, and to the lights, Laurel spared no expense.
“Our lights are tremendous,” Ludwig said. “I don’t even realize how good of lighting we have until we go to some other stadiums. We get pretty spoiled around here.
“As far as the seating goes, the lighting goes, the field and underneath, the concession stands and the locker rooms, just everything that goes along with this stadium, I just think you can’t get anything better around the state. I would put this up against any other stadium in the state, no doubt about it.”