by Emily Schwartz, Sports Editor & Rebecca Stotsky, Sports Reporter
photo by Hedi Skali
This summer, the City of Newton installed stadium lights at Winkler Stadium after a more than 15-year-long push from the South community.
Girls soccer head coach Doug McCarthy has fought for the permanent installation of lights at the stadium for over 15 years, since before senior captain Olivia Dubin was on the team.
“We’re very excited,” Dubin said. “We love the night games, so the chance to have more of them and have them be more of a regular occurrence was really exciting for us.”
Previously, night games have been limited to one fall weekend each year, for which South rents portable stadium lights. The football team and boys and girls soccer teams each play under the lights in their sole regular season night home game over the course of that weekend.
Playing under the lights is a completely new experience than playing in a day game, football player junior Patrick Sullivan said.
“It’s a whole different feeling,” he said. “You play better at night when the lights are on,” he said. “[It’s like] a primetime game in the NFL: you feel more focused.”
Dubin said that permanent lights will likely draw more fans to girls soccer games than those who come out for typical “Friday Night Lights” weekend games.
“Usually boys soccer gets Saturdays, so there’s less of a show up for ours which are on Sundays,” she said. “We’ve been a really successful team for the last, probably, five years. We’re a really fun team to watch, so hopefully with more night games there’ll be more turnout and more of a crowd to hype us up because that’s the best part.”
Athletics Director Patricia Gonzalez said that she and then-principal Joel Stembridge immediately supported installing lights since they met with McCarthy about the initiative about two years ago.
“When we are able to host night games, that’s a big part of community building in the sense that people feel that they belong,” she said. “When we have an event like that, you are part of something bigger, supporting your school.”
McCarthy said he has advocated for lights since plans to renovate the stadium and surrounding fields were proposed in 2004. The stadium, several fields and the track were renovated in 2008, but lights were left out of the project.
In 2014, McCarthy and a city councilor tried to rekindle the lights project, but nearby residents were against getting them, he said.
Night games have been historically unpleasant for the surrounding neighborhood, South neighbor Reza Khorshidi said.
“Our main concerns have been all along the disturbance of the peace to the neighborhood in the evenings,” Khorshidi said. “Both in terms of noise, as well as the lights themselves, and the spillover crowds after the game and the rowdy, loud music playing … that’s why the neighborhood was against putting up these lights.”
Given South’s Ward 8 location, former local Ward 8 city councilor Cheryl Lappin represented the school neighbors’ concerns about installing lights until she retired in January.
Lappin said that neighbors have been concerned about installing lights since the NEWTURF project, which renovated the stadium, several fields and the track in 2008, aiming to fix the poor field quality. Though former city councilor Amy Sangiolo, who served on the Council’s Programs and Services committee during the project, said that concerns were raised about the dangers of installing synthetic turf to both field users and the environment, NEWTURF passed the City Council with only two votes against it.
Neighbors ultimately supported the NEWTURF project despite initial concerns about increased activity on the South complex, Lappin said.
“The mayor at the time, [David Cohen], said ‘as long as I’m mayor, there will not be lights at Newton South,’” she said. “After that agreement, a lot of the neighbors ended up helping to raise money for some of the fields.”
The no-lights agreement continued under Mayor Setti Warren’s administration, but current Mayor Ruthanne Fuller has allowed the lights renovation to begin.
In 2019, a new lighting technology that allowed for zero light spillage beyond the stadium was incorporated into project plans, enabling them to move forward creating less disruption to neighbors, McCarthy said.
At a February 2019 public hearing, the Parks and Recreation Commission unanimously approved installing lights.
“The outpouring support from the community at that public hearing was a significant factor in gaining approval,” McCarthy said. “The student speakers were outstanding; they spoke passionately.”
After the Commission’s hearing, Lappin said she contacted then-Parks and Recreation Department commissioner Bob DeRebeis.
DeRebeis organized a group of neighborhood representatives to negotiate terms for the light installation, Lappin said. Neighbors were able to share their input on negotiations through three to four representatives who worked with the Parks and Recreation department, now-Parks and Recreation Department commissioner Nicole Banks said in an email on Sept. 8.
The Parks and Recreation department and school administration worked with neighbors on installation terms for over a year, Khorshidi said.
The negotiated Field Use Policy states that lights must be turned off by 9:30 p.m. for games and by 9 p.m. for practices, that the Public Address system may only be used for school games and that no more than 25 school night games will be scheduled each academic year. The policy also establishes a parking plan for school events to minimize congestion in the neighborhood, as well as a plan for South and the city to work together to mitigate the event’s garbage.
“The noise and the disturbance from the night games at the stadium are a big concern for a lot of us, so I’m personally glad that we have this agreement in place,” Khorshidi said. “Hopefully, all parties will be happier going forward.”
On April 6, the Council approved accepting $270,000 in Booster Club fundraising, which enabled the installation to move forward, by a vote of 23-0 (with one Councilor recused).
After 15 years of discourse, the lights were installed just in time for the 60th anniversary of the first student athletes stepping out onto South playing fields. Boys and girls soccer, football and field hockey teams will use the field for night games in the fall during a typical season (this fall season, because of COVID, the football team will not be playing). In the spring, the lacrosse program and track teams plan to host night games and meets at the field, Gonzalez said.
McCarthy said the new permanent lights will become an important fixture in the community, post-COVID.
“It allows for parents who work to see their kids play. Because of that, there are a lot more people in the stands,” he said. “It brings the community together. It brings the youth sports teams who are supporting the high school teams [into] the game … It promotes school spirit.”