Don't blame the Columbia Eagles for wanting to begin high school football practice at the first moment possible.
At midnight Wednesday, the Eagles broke in their new artificial turf field with a short workout. While other metro-east players slept preparing for the start of two-a-day practices, the Eagles -- expected to be one of the region's top small-school teams -- were in helmets under the lights.
And under the moon.
"You know how kids are," said Columbia coach Scott Horner, whose team was back on the field again at 9 a.m. Wednesday. "It obviously changes the excitement level, which probably in time will wear off a little bit. But not every school you play has a field that's like this, so to have that the excitement level for the players is really through the roof."
The midnight practice was the brainchild of Horner, whose team returns plenty of talent from a 6-4 squad that lost to Herrin in the first round of the playoffs.
"I actually thought about that back in March or April," said Horner, who emailed parents to get their opinions on the late-night kickoff practice. "I did not get one parent that responded to me in a negative way and the majority that did respond said wow, what a cool idea."
The first football game on the Eagles' new field is Aug. 31 against Monroe County rival Waterloo. A boys varsity soccer game will be played there earlier in the week.
Columbia and Collinsville are the latest metro-east schools to add state-of-the-art artificial turf playing fields. They joined East St. Louis, Edwardsville, Freeburg, O'Fallon and Waterloo. Althoff will play on the new artificial turf at Lindenwood University.
What sets Columbia's field apart is a slight alternating in the green grass colors every five yards, as well as its location on the side of a large hill.
The Eagles also have eye-catching royal blue end zones and a giant Eagles logo at midfield -- all made easier to see by new lighting.
"It really lights that thing up and it looked like a danged college stadium," Horner said. "For us, that's a huge. huge difference."
As at other schools, the turf field will also be used for soccer and physical education as well as the marching band.
Columbia held an "open house" Tuesday night for students, parents and anyone else who wanted to check it out. Superintendent Gina Segobiano couldn't have been more pleased with the turnout.
"We had about 400 or 500 people stop by the field to walk around, kids were doing cartwheels and soccer balls were being kicked and footballs were being thrown," Segobiano said. "It was just a celebration. I didn't know if there would be 50 people or 100 people, but when everyone kept rolling in it was very gratifying.
"It was just a great feeling of community."
Segobiano said planning for the fields and lights -- a project that cost more than $900,000 -- began last February with local focus groups that held several meetings.
"We had enough support just from within that group to present (the project) to the board of education," said Segobiano, who also got plenty of support from local companies like Luhr Brothers Contractors, Electrico and others.
"We generated such positive support community-wide that the school board approved the contract with the intention of paying for a third of the total cost," Segobiano said.
She said the final costs of the project were $810,000 for the field and soil stabilization, with a second $150,000 lighting project financed in part through a state maintenance grant.
Through in-kind work done by Luhr Brothers, Electrico and others, and pledged financial support from the community, the district's portion of the project was kept lower.
In addition, the school's construction class helped renovate the aging press box.
"It was an amazing process to see," she said.
The result is a field that has quickly generated pride and excitement for everyone involved.
"I can't really put my finger on exactly what that is or how to describe it, but good portion of it is just the appearance," said Horner, who thinks the field compares favorably to a new complex at Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin.
"If you've got a grass field, early in the year it might look good and usually by mid-season it's pretty cruddy. Not many people have the resources to keep those grass field up like the SEC (college football's Southeastern Conference) or places like that. This looks great."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.