Lodi High fans came out in full force to the Grape Bowl on Thursday night, eager both to see their Flames take on the McNair Eagles and to see exactly what $3 million-plus buys you these days.
The eagerly anticipated first local high school game was held at the Grape Bowl in front of around 3,000 fans, who all seemed to have a similar reaction to Lodi and Tokay High's new home:
"'Wow' is the consensus tonight" said Bob Tigert, president of the Lodi High Football boosters. Tigert had been standing next to a Lodi Football trailer at the top of the stands, near the North Stockton Street entrance, for the majority of the night, and he said every person that walked by did the same thing:
"Everybody came up, they'd stop here and look, then they'd go get their seats," Tigert said. "Like shock and awe... . It was kind of cool to be here and be a part of it."
"The field looks fabulous," said Belinda Yeats, a Lodi High campus security supervisor who was working security at the game. "Every single person, I don't care if they were from McNair or Lodi, everyone had to feel the turf."
There's little doubt that a playoff matchup between Lodi and McNair would have attracted a large crowd whether it was played at the new Grape Bowl or in the Walmart parking lot, but many of the fans were curious to see the FieldTurf and the very bright new lighting system. Although no one said they were there specifically to see the renovations, everyone said they were impressed by the improvements.
"It's changed a lot since the first time I came to a game here, which was in 1966," said Lodi Mayor Phil Katzakian. "It's a great facility. You don't find a facility like this up and down the Central Valley."
"I wish I could have played on it," said Jeff Paul, a senior and football player at Tokay High.
Jim Rodems, Lodi Parks and Recreation's interim director, said about 3,000 fans were expected for the game. There was at least that many in attendance, and the middle section of bleachers was packed to the brim by kickoff. Just before 7 p.m., there was still at least 300 people waiting outside to buy tickets and get into the Bowl. Rodems said the long wait to get into the stadium will be addressed in the near future.
"It's a facility that has four points of entry, and those are really based on how they used to enter buildings in 1940," Rodems said. "As part of our renovations, we'll start working on different logistics on getting people into the building. It just takes a little time."
But once inside, everyone was able to grab a seat — even if it wasn't at the 50-yard line. And no matter where people were seated, they could see the vibrant yard-lines and numbers on the field very clearly thanks to the new lights.
"When you first walk in, you notice the lighting and it looks so nice and clean and new," said Jackie Mettler, who rang a cowbell vigorously all game long in support of the Flames. Her son, a junior, was playing on the turf for Lodi High on Thursday night.
"It looks professional," said former Lodi High player John Herrera, who played football for the Flames in 1989. "We just need more seats."
Unfortunately for spectators, the concessions were not so easily accessible. Temporary concession stands were set up in the gravel section of the Bowl, just east of the playing field. Still, that didn't deter fans from trying to get some pizza or a soda, as the food stand had a line for most of the evening.
Those mostly concerned with the game were treated to a different kind of visual spectacle than just pretty lines and green fake grass: The sight of Lodi High players traipsing up and down the sidelines and scoring almost at will. Using a variety of long runs, passes and an interception return, the Flames piled up 34 second-half points and cruised to victory in a 48-16 drubbing.
The players also enjoyed getting to play on their fancy new home turf. Senior Lodi linebacker Justin Gillet said it was far superior to the natural grass previously used at the stadium.
"I like it a lot better (than the old field)," Gillet said. "Everybody says it hurts when you fall (on turf), but it really doesn't... . I like everything about this field."
"The seniors missed playing on it all year, and this is their last shot at playing on the Grape Bowl field," said Tigert, whose son is a senior on the football team. "It was really exciting for them."
The Flames were greeted to their new field with a large "Welcome Home" banner at the bottom of the stands, and it was clear that fans were also very glad to finally be in their new permanent home stadium. Fans young and old were in attendance, and many of Lodi High's former players and students had braved the cold autumn night to see the new digs.
"There was a lot of alumni here, people that graduated from like 1955... . For the field and the team," Mettler said.
There are quite a few rules that accompany the brand new turf, and a long list of items are prohibited on it. Cleats that are very long or made of metal, food, chewing gum, sunflower seeds, tobacco, and liquids other than sports drinks or water are not allowed. The public address announcer read the new rules to the crowd at halftime, and Lodi parks superintendent Steve Dutra said adhering to the rules is very important for the long-term health of the new field. Aside from keeping it looking nice, the city must also obey the rules or the turf's producer, FieldTurf, could void its product's eight-year warranty.
"That's a real big deal for us that have limited dollars," Dutra said.
But neither rules, nor cold temperatures, nor long lines could keep the fans away from this debut, and from all accounts it was a successful one. The renovation is not yet complete — there is still a need for permanent restrooms, which Rodems said will be coming in future work on the Bowl, and a concession stand is still planned. But fans seemed pretty happy with what they had so far.
"The old girl needs a few more improvements, but she's looking really good," Tigert said. "It's been a long wait and I'd say we're glad to be home."
Contact reporter Fernando Gallo at fernando@lodinews. com.