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BETHANY — Why not Okaw Valley? 

That's the phrase Okaw Valley's athletic director Brooks Inman and school administrators used when planning and proposing a $1.5 million sports facility improvement plan that included a new track, baseball and softball fields.

Nearly a year later, the construction of the track and two fields is complete, the facility is hosting games and the project (along with a newly completed agricultural building) has become a jewel of the campus. 

"Why can’t we have this? Why can’t we set the bar and be the one that does things and makes this place special?" Inman said. "We want to be the best that we can be.

"We wanted to offer our kids a first-class educational and extracurricular experience, and I think that our school board and administration has been supportive of that and we are so thankful across the board for everything the kids and the community brings us."

Thoughts of upgrading the high school's sports facility had been bubbling for a while until a plan came forward last year following meetings with construction firm Byrne & Jones.

"We started looking at adding a new baseball and softball complex about two years ago," Inman said. "Financially it didn’t make sense at that time and we didn’t go through with it.

"After we had a visit from Byrne & Jones in May of 2018 and we talked with them and our school board and our superintendent, it happened fast. We met in May and broke ground on July 30."

The project did not require additional funding from the school board. 

"The school board has been very frugal and conservative since the beginning of the school and they spend their money wisely," Okaw Valley principal Matt Shoaff said. "Not many schools can be fortunate to do something like this and still be ahead and be able to function without asking the taxpayers for more money."

Byrne & Jones have done several sport facility project in the area, including Millikin's Frank M. Lindsay Field, and both Argenta-Oreana's and Mount Zion's football fields.

Before the project, the Timberwolves' track ran through a portion of the baseball field's center field, and softball games were played at Crowder Park, about a half-mile from the school. The construction placed the softball field where the baseball field had been, and the new baseball field was built in an open field directly south of the softball field. 

The baseball field sports a turf infield and natural grass outfield. The softball field has a dirt infield and grass outfield. Both fields feature warning tracks, bullpens and a new meaner-looking Timberwolves logo. 

"It’s wonderful to have a state-of-the-art facility," Okaw Valley softball coach Dave Benning said. "We've gone several years with several rain-outs at our city park. With the new diamond in place and a field that is crowned and scaled that water will run right off, it gives us opportunities we didn’t have before and about half a dozen times a year we just couldn’t play."

Senior infielder Bella Benning said she was thrilled with the upgrades. 

"Our dugouts are day and night and they are bigger and there is room for everybody," Benning said. "The infield ground is a lot smoother and so there aren’t any bad hops. The outfield the grass is much nicer. It’s nice and smooth."

Metal cleats aren't allowed on the turf baseball infield, so Inman came up with a unique solution. 

"Metal cleats shortens the lifespan of your turf but you can have either tennis shoes, turf shoes or molded cleats," Inman said. "We didn’t want to have a home-field advantage because we may have different shoes, so we had a donor to put forth money to get 25 pairs of cleats for the opposing schools.

"Basically I'm running run a bowling alley before games and that has been well received."

Okaw Valley has become a destination for other school districts considering a similar project.

"We have had other towns come and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you have turf on your baseball field,'" Shoaff said. "We have had different schools reach out to come visit and tour the fields." 

Next steps include the installation of lights, which would allow Okaw Valley to host sectional events for baseball and softball. 

"It has been all excitement, especially once things got completed," Inman said. "We have had a lot of alumni that when they come back want to take a look, and everyone who has come here is very happy with it. It’s one of a kind.

"For a school our size, we are doing some things even larger schools aren’t doing. We might be small but we are going to do things that we think we can do."

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Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten

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Reporter

Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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