Right on track, right on time: the story of St. Ansgar’s facilities

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a multi-part series highlighting the St. Ansgar School’s renovations and construction over the past several years. Much of these projects wouldn’t have been possible without the community’s commitment, with so many lending a hand it would be impossible to mention them all. Our goal is to shed light on some of the volunteers, school board members, coaches, teachers, parents, students and alumni that have helped make St. Ansgar one of the best looking schools of its size in Iowa. 

By Travis Charlson and Colby Fossey

It was the day after Thanksgiving, 2013. The thermometers outside read a meager 1º — the kind of cold that stings your face and burns your eyes like a flurry of ice-cold needles. It wasn’t about to get warmer anytime soon, and Devin Schwiesow was running out of time. The school board had just cut a deal with a racetrack going out of business in Shakopee, Minnesota— a suburb of Minneapolis — to purchase a set of bleachers for the new football field for pennies on the dollar. The catch? They had one month to come up there and get them.

“But we aren’t ready to get them,” thought Schwiesow. There was no place to put them. Where would they go? It was too big of a project. “We don’t want that right now,” he thought.  And it was cold. Very cold.

Two years prior, Schwiesow had taken a year off from coaching varsity baseball to focus on a massive project to rebuild the school’s sports facilities. It was only a year before that when he and Drew Clevenger, fellow teacher and head football coach, stood in front of the school board and pleaded their case to update the sports facilities — which were long overdue.

The old football and baseball fields. St. Ansgar was one of the last schools around to have combined baseball/football fields. Submitted photo.

The paint had worn away from the bleachers of the football field, the press box looked like it was one windy storm from blowing away. There was no track around it — that unsightly oval encircled the cratered, lunar landscape of the practice field — and it had no fence. Nothing but a long rope held up by traffic cones stretched along the sidelines to let spectators know where the field ended and the audience began. Each summer, the football field doubled as the outfield for baseball, with nothing but a snow fence staked to the ground to mark the outer fence. In 2013, the track was still made of cinder, which turned to a soupy mess with any measurable rainfall. For years the track held no meets, as its dimensions were still measured in feet. It’s been 40 years since high school made the switch to metric, and the last olympics to feature a cinder track was in 1964.

Something had to be done.

“[Drew and I] finished our grad program and we did kind of a facilities paper [that] kind of led to the creation and vision of what this could look like for us,” Schwiesow said.

“There’s not a lot of money right now,” superintendent-at-the-time Jim Woodward told the two coaches. “But if you want, present your vision with where you think things can go.”

So they did, but money was tight and the school was forced to triage its projects, and the decaying, two-story elementary school half way across town occupied the top of the list.

“Nothing concrete really happened right away,” Clevenger said.

The view from home plate of the new baseball field, before construction in early 2011. Submitted photo.

“We’re doing it!” said Gene Hertel. The former school board member had found the darned things, and the deal was too good to pass up. So what if it was cold, so what if they had to drive up to Shakopee and tear the bleachers down themselves in freezing weather, then haul them back. The first step was getting them. Figuring out what to do with them could be worked out later.

Hertel and the school board knew they had to pull the trigger on this golden opportunity.

The help was lined up. Wold’s, a local tire manufacturer, offered to use their semi’s to haul bleacher parts the 120 miles from Shakopee to St. Ansgar. Other local companies and businesses offered man power and labor, and even the students pitched in.

“We had all of our athletes up there freezing our butts off…” Schwiesow said.

After multiple semi-loads and two weekends, the bleachers made it back to St. Ansgar. But the school was looking at possibly building a new elementary school where the football field was, and not much could be done until those deliberations were wrapped up.

Students and volunteers tearing down the bleacher at the racetrack in Minnesota. Submitted photo.

“[The bleachers] sat for two plus years in about 10,000 pieces it seemed like,” Clevenger said.

Eventually, construction of a new elementary began once the bond passed, and a new location for a track and football field was set. Now they just had a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle they had to put together. Piece by piece, they stretched and squeezed and molded it into shape, creating a 2,000 seat grand stand and one of the best compared to any school St. Ansgar’s size. They even ended up with a bunch of left over parts they still use for benches and things like that.

“Can’t believe we did it,” Clevenger said. “Can’t believe it worked.”

But the new football bleachers are just one example of the community’s involvement in the many facilities projects — a new baseball field, irrigation for the baseball and softball fields, all weather track, new football field and new concession stands have also been built in the last few years with substantial help from volunteers.

The completed baseball field lit up at night. The field was recently voted the best in the state by the Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Association. Submitted photo.

“We would find some experts and think, ok, what’s our next step? We need dugouts; Alright, who knows how to do those?” Schwiesow said. “Who in our community knows how to do this because we don’t and if they did, they would donate a weekend for us and we would get 10-20 people who didn’t know what they were doing that were just going to follow orders and that is how a lot of it got done.

“The bleachers were a big piece of that and now even looking back, that’s amazing.”

By the time of that cold morning the day after Thanksgiving, the vision Schwiesow and Clevenger shared with the board no longer belonged to them. Little by little, fate had intervened, and before long, volunteers from community, members of the school board, donors and even students were saying “Hey, we’re doing this.”

“The only thing we did was go to the board first,” Clevenger said. “Once we got some of the [project] going then I think there was some momentum behind it.”

Leave a Comment