In need of new playing facilities, KU soccer team excited by Rock Chalk Park

by AJ Barbosa

While she openly admits she enjoys all the new tutors, free clothes and tickets, Ali Kimura will tell you her favorite part about making the University of Kansas’ women’s soccer team this year is something else.

“I know how proud this makes my mom,” Kimura said. “Before each practice, I think about how proud she is of me for being on the team and it motivates me to work harder and harder.”

Hard work has long-since been Kimura’s bread and butter – a junior from Overland Park, Kimura earned a walk-on spot in head coach Mark Francis’s starting 11 this season after playing for the school’s club team for two years. Before that, she was a four-year varsity starter at Shawnee Mission South and still holds the schools’ record for career goals.

In high school, Kimura played on the turf pitch of the colossal, 9,000-seat Shawnee Mission District Stadium. At the University of Kansas, Kimura plays on the sometimes-choppy pitch at Jayhawk Soccer Complex, an unlit field behind Oliver Residence Hall with bleacher seating for 1,000 spectators – the smallest stadium in Big 12 women’s soccer.

City commissioners are in the process of working with various administrative departments and KU Endowment to break ground on “Rock Chalk Park,” a newly proposed athletic complex in northwest Lawrence. The project is slated to include a much-needed public recreation center, as well as new playing facilities –brand new stadiums and locker rooms – for KU’s track and field, softball and soccer teams.

The proposal is a hot topic for many in Lawrence because, if built, the city’s young volleyball, basketball, soccer and tennis players would finally have a free place to practice and play in the two-story, $25 million recreation center.

The recreation center at Rock Chalk Park may be a focal point of debate among locals and Lawrence natives, but University of Kansas student athletes who participate in smaller, less lucrative sports will likely also have access to facilities that mirror the quality of the gyms and practice fields of KU’s football and basketball teams – provided that the complex is approved and then built.

If things go according to current plans, the complex, to be located at 6th street and South Lawrence Trafficway, would house new stadiums for both the university’s track and field and women’s soccer teams. Students and athletes living on campus would have to take on a slightly larger commute, but Kimura says that’s be a drop in the bucket.

“Everyone on the team that I’ve talked to – including the coaches – are all very excited about a new stadium,” Kimura said. “I was talking to one of the coaches the other day about it and he told me that he’s been coaching here for 14 years and has been waiting for a stadium all 14 years.”

Even if things were to fall through, Kimura said that she and other team members feel the current stadium could still work – if it’s lighted.

“Since we don’t have any lights on the field, all of our games are held at times like 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.,” Kimura said. “That makes it difficult for us to get fans to attend.”

But if things go according to plan, a new 2,500-seat soccer stadium would stand at Rock Chalk Park next to the softball team’s new stadium and would be connected with a 10,000-seat track and field stadium. Lawrence Vice Mayor Michael Dever says that the track and field stadium would not just become the new home of KU’s team; it could potentially host premier athletic events at the state, regional and national levels.

“When we’re done with this, I’d imagine we’d have a facility that would be one of maybe four in the country of really high quality,” Dever said. “It would have the types of surfaces and amenities that would be very interesting to potential AAU events, the Special Olympics, and perhaps even [Kansas state high school] activities.”

A bigger complex doesn’t necessarily guarantee success, but Kimura says she thinks the quality of team facilities can play a significant role in attracting future talent.

“A new stadium would definitely bring in more – and better – recruits in the future,” Kimura said emphatically. “When you first go on your official visit and see a game from a small set of bleachers, it’s not that impressive. It would really impress recruits if we had a bigger stadium with lights.”

Still, the bright lights and grandstands usually aren’t deal-breakers to a player, and Kimura says there are more important things to consider when looking at playing at two different schools.

“If I was [hypothetically] shown KU’s soccer complex along with [Oklahoma’s] complex, I would be leaning towards wanting to play at Oklahoma’s,” Kimura said. “But the players and coaches are what’s most important; coach Francis would definitely had swayed my decision back to KU – even with our current ‘complex.’”

For now, to the chagrin of the project’s opposition, the public won’t likely decide Rock Chalk Park’s fate by way of public vote. According to the Lawrence Journal-World, the city is planning on covering 85 percent of the project’s cost by using revenue accrued from a one-cent sales tax increase that passed in 1994.

Today, city commissioners discussed moving forward with the project yet again in a city hall meeting. According to the Lawrence Journal-World, city commissioner Mike Amyx encouraged his colleagues to re-examine the project and evaluate whether or not it’s one of the city’s priorities. The project also comes along at a unique time when the city can build a massive facility like Rock Chalk Park for little-to-no cost to taxpayers.

“I don’t think the community is aware of the financial position we’re in,” city commissioner Hugh Carter told the Lawrence Journal-World. “The whole national conversation is about how people are overspending. We’re saying right now is the time to build something, and that takes guts. But we’re OK here, we really are. It is not doom and gloom.”

Is having a larger stadium advantageous to a team’s performance on the field? Check out this infographic that suggests having the biggest grandstand might not be as conducive as you’d think.

final infographic 2

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