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New surface in Merrill a boon for track, tennis teams

The installation of the familiar Bates Bobcat logo was one of the final touches on the all-new surface inside Merrill Indoor Gymnasium. (Photos and story by Jessie Sawyer '09)

LEWISTON, Maine -- In 1981, the indoor track and tennis facilities were installed in Merrill Indoor Gymnasium and were state of the art. But after years of use by athletic team members and the Bates community, the surface wore down so much that it was as hard as asphalt. According to Al Fereshetian, the men’s track and cross country head coach, the track was repainted in the early 90s, but had not been touched since.

Until now, that is. Because for the first time in 27 years, the indoor track and tennis courts have been resurfaced, returning Merrill to regional preeminence among facilities of its kind.

“It is fantastic. Without question this gives us the best track and field and tennis facilities in New England. No one has the combination of indoor and outdoor facilities that we offer,” Fereshetian said.

The renovations in Merrill had been discussed for many years, but it was a matter of waiting for the time and money to do it. (Assistant Vice President for Financial Planning & Analysis Doug Ginevan estimates that the project will come in slightly under its $900,000 budget.) The project began in June. Fereshetian served as the Department of Athletics representative during the planning and construction parts of the project. Physical Plant Project Manager Mike Gustin oversaw the construction, making sure the contractors fulfilled all of the specifications that were bid for the job. Director of Athletics Kevin McHugh, Women’s Cross Country and Track & Field Head Coach Jay Hartshorn and Men's and Women's Tennis Head Coach Paul Gastonguay had input on the creative side of the project.

The surface is made by Mondo, manufacturer of tracks used in the past eight Olympic Games, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as well as Bates' outdoor track on Russell Street. The global leader in the sports flooring market, it is considered by runners to be the “fastest, most durable and environmentally safest track available,” according to Global Newswire. The rubber surface was designed to endure longer, so that it maintains its cushion for a longer span of time. Its cushion also provides “shock absorption and optimal energy return,” which reduces injuries.

The new surface is a major improvement upon the old one. Fereshetian noted that Bates coaches had to be extra cautious during the indoor season — by the end of the season, he would have “around 10 guys with shin splints and other injuries.” Distance runners wouldn’t run on the indoor track more than once a week. The coaches also made sure that their runners did some cross training in the pool and on the cardio machines to avoid too much stress on the legs from the track. Two weeks into outdoor track season, on the softer surface, Fereshetian said that number of injuries reduced significantly.

With the new surface, Fereshetian expects to have a healthier team. He anticipates faster times on the track, and he also believes that the reduction of injury and cushion of the new track will allow his team to attain a higher level of fitness. “Subtle adjustments and improvements have been made to the track for both competition and training,” Fereshetian said.

Because Maine’s winter often extends into March, the outdoor track and field teams may see as little as two months on the outdoor track. The resurfaced indoor track will enhance training for the outdoor season, bettering performances in competition, according to Hartshorn.

“Our outdoor track & field facility is great, but for us it's far more important to have a great indoor facility as most of the season is spent inside, five months versus two months,” said Hartshorn. “I see a few huge benefits. The first is the surface will be much better for training. We will be able to do so much more without worrying about injuries due to a hard surface. We'll also be able to host more meets and get more teams up to Maine, which is sometimes challenging. It's also going to be great to just train in a brighter and cleaner facility.”

Improvements made to the long jump pit and landing area will more effectively prevent sand from dirtying the track and tennis courts.

Distance markings and relay zones have been more clearly marked, including 4x100-meter relay markings for outdoor track training. At the 55-meter dash lanes, a 60-meter marker has also been added in case Division III follows in the footsteps of Division I to run the 60 instead of the 55.

A permanent concrete throwing circle has been installed which is big enough to be used for even the discus throw, an outdoor-only event, allowing throwers to train for outdoor season earlier and in poor weather, a feature which none of Bates’ competitors have.

A new black net around the track makes for a more attractive color contrast that also makes the field events and tennis matches more visible. The green tennis courts and red track and field highlight both sports well, according to Fereshetian.

Gastonguay and the tennis team, which hosted the NCAA Division III Men’s Tennis Championships in May, is also thrilled about the refurbished indoor tennis courts.

“We are all very pleased with the professional look of the facility. The tennis surface is a multi-use surface and will play slower than the old surface, but will have a true bounce and will take spin,” Gastonguay said. “The cushioning is superb and will erase all of the stress related injuries that we had over the last 12 years. We are very fortunate to have some of the best indoor and outdoor courts in the NESCAC.”

Gastonguay selected the removable tennis post system, which will make the transition between tennis and lacrosse practice easier. All one has to do is pivot a cover off of the hole in the field house and drop the posts in. Gastonguay explained that the old system had a pole with a T-shaped base that sat on the surface of the field house, which required the posts to be tensioned down using a screw-in anchor and a cable with a pulley to connect to the anchor and post.

“It was very complicated and prone to break,” Gastonguay said. “This new system is quick and strong, and it won’t require a physics major to set up.”

New lights installed are brighter and use half the energy that the old ones did.

McHugh estimates that well over 100 people use the track or tennis courts every day. In addition to the Bates track, cross country and tennis teams, other Bates students and staff members work out there as well. English professor Robert Farnsworth and his friends play doubles three to four times a week during the summer and two to three times a week during the school year.

“The old surface in Merrill did present challenges: the ball would sometimes skid strangely upon it, and one of our numbers began to develop plantar fasciitis from the hard courts. So we're looking forward to the new surface indeed,” Farnsworth said.

McHugh is happy about the new facility from a number of standpoints. The Merrill renovations are the first big athletic project he’s seen since he was hired last year — the most recent athletics facilities improvement being the establishment of the Bates Squash Center in 2004. Bates tours will walk through Merrill, and McHugh believes the renovations will help with recruiting.

“Showing of the face of the college, it’s nice to have a brand-spanking-new facility you can highlight,” he said.

In light of Bates’ focus on sustainability, new lighting has been installed in Merrill as a separate project. The lighting uses half as much energy as it used to and is much brighter, a factor which McHugh believes will help performances.

“The fact that you’re able to work out in a brighter, newer space adds to the overall enjoyment and experience of the workout,” McHugh said.

There are still some finishing touches being done, but the track and tennis courts will be opened for use by the start of the fall semester.