BLACKSBURG, Va. — The precise combination of sand, silt, and clay pushed into the treads of Julie Kessler’s shoes when she took the field in August at the Little League Softball World Series.
Only Kessler wasn’t a player — she was part of the grounds crew.
Though this was far from the first time treads have been filled with that combination of materials called an infield mix, it was the first time in the history of the Little League Softball World Series all these treads were worn by women.
“Being a part of this group is something that I will cherish forever,” said Julie Kessler, a junior from Nokesville, Virginia, who graduated from the Agricultural Technology Program prior to pursuing her degree in agribusiness in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “I hadn’t worked with other girls in this field before. There just are not a lot of women in turfgrass management, so, hopefully, young women see that this is a meaningful and valuable career path for them. This experience means so much to me.”
As part of the all-female grounds crew, Kessler painted foul lines, got the mound ready, mowed the outfield, and did the traditional midgame drag over the infield dirt — essentially everything that major league crews do. After the games, Kessler helped clean up the fields and prepare them for the next event. Kessler helped crew 10 games over the final four days of the Little League Softball World Series held in Greenville, North Carolina.
To further the big-league experience, a rain delay kicked off the event. The crew grabbed the tarp – large enough to cover the entire infield area – and did the traditional sprint that follows the path a ball takes around the horn.
“Anything that we were asked to do I knew how to do because of my experiences at Virginia Tech,” Kessler said. “I was well prepared for everything that came my way over those four days.”
That preparation came, in part, from a baseball practicum course where Kessler was at Virginia Tech’s baseball and softball fields learning – hands-on – how to do everything that involves being a member of a grounds crew.
Her sports journey that started at Virginia Tech also included an internship with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Having an internship at a professional team was an incredible experience,” Kessler said. “The resources provided by the team allowed us to do whatever was necessary to improve both the playing surface and the landscaping.”
In the National Football League, the playing surface has tight parameters in order to be a safe playing surface for players to help prevent injuries. From game days and beyond, it takes constant upkeep to maintain a playable surface.
Venues the size of NFL stadiums host events aside from football, such as major concerts. While Kessler interned with the Steelers, she helped with the maintenance and setup of these events, which included a Wizard of Oz Broadway Musical Celebration.
“Half the field had special flooring on it, which caused major issues for the playing surface,” she said. “Once the flooring is down, the grass dies by the time the flooring comes up. We would re-sod and do other maintenance to ensure the playing surface met NFL standards.”
While at the internship, Kessler was able to put into practice something she learned during her second year in the Agricultural Technology Program – an impact test for the turf using a Clegg hammer, a special tool that determines a surface’s shock absorption and capacity tolerances.
The hammer, which looks like a bike pump on steroids, was connected to a tablet that gave a data readout for the turf’s hardness, allowing her to make proper decisions about player safety and performance.
For the NFL, the number needs to be in a range of 62-100, and the field is tested periodically throughout the year. A softer field allows for more give in the turf, which helps players land, but a slightly harder turf improves player performance and helps reduce other kinds of injuries.
“Because of the Ag Tech Program, I am prepared for any opportunity that comes my way,” Kessler said. “I was ready to be a part of the first all-female grounds crew at the Little League Softball World Series. I was ready for an internship with a National Football League team. Ag Tech did that.”
–Max Esterhuizen, Virginia Tech