There are a number of things fans can expect to see during a typical high school football game — a game-winning play, a compromising fumble, a funny touchdown dance. A gopher’s head popping up during the game, however, is likely not one of those things.
For Denair High School, the chance of seeing a gopher mid-play became an all-too-real possibility for athletes and onlookers over the past two years as the school has worked tirelessly to battle a growing gopher population that took over the field.
“One of our parents that was on the chain gang said he saw one on the field,” said principal Kara Backman. “They’re brave. They’re not exactly scared of human beings.”
“It was pretty bad,” added Denair Unified School District facilities director Brian Holloway. “We were the laughing stock of the football league. The field was just rough to play on.”
Holloway said he immediately noticed the school’s gopher problem on the football field when he started working for the district in January of last year. He said that the school had a pest control company on contract to mitigate the number of gophers on the football field, but when that proved to be unsuccessful earlier this year, the district decided to handle the problem in-house.
“We had basically two guys out there probably putting in three to four hours a day just trapping gophers with wire traps,” said Holloway.
Holloway said that in the time period between January and Thursday, his team caught over 60 gophers on the high school campus — 40 to 50 of which were from the football field alone. He added that the football field is 99 percent gopher free at this point, with one more gopher left to catch.
“I’ve personally been on the hunt for the final gopher and I can’t get it,” laughed Holloway. “I expect to have him in my hands tomorrow morning.”
Holloway said that even if he were to catch that final gopher by Friday morning, the process of keeping the high school football field free of gophers will be ongoing.
“We’re in an ag area and we will always have gophers,” said Holloway. “But I will say that we’ll have them under control.”
Prior to capturing a majority of the gophers, Holloway said that the football coach and a number of volunteers were forced to fill the sunken gopher holes and tunnels with sand before each game to mitigate the hazards of playing on the field.
“Anybody that was available would go out there — kids, players, the principal, campus supervisors, or me,” said Holloway. “It was what he had available at the time.”
On Monday, DUSD contracted West Coast Turf — a company that has worked on major league baseball fields such as AT&T Park and Dodger Stadium and national league football fields such as Levi’s Stadium and the Oakland Coliseum — to disperse 175 tons of sand to level out the surface the field. This top soil treatment cost the district just under $10,000, but Holloway is hoping to avoid paying such a steep price in the future by doing the process himself.
“We’re confident we can do this ourselves, we just have to rent some equipment. We watched the process, we took notes on how it was done and we asked a lot of questions,” said Holloway, who said that he hopes to carry out the treatment at least twice a year. “We can probably do it for $2,500 and save the district an abundance of money.”
To make sure that the gopher problem never gets to the level it was at when he first started working for the district, Holloway said that he and his team will constantly monitor the field and carry gopher traps with them on every lawn mower, tractor or golf cart. Backman added that the school is also looking to set up owl boxes to help make sure the gopher problem stays under control.
“I have traps on my golf cart so if I’m out there on the field meeting with somebody and I see a gopher, I have a trap right there,” said Holloway. “Everyday we have to be hunting these gophers.”
Both Backman and Holloway said that the field will be closed until April to “give it a break” after back-to-back football and soccer seasons. Backman said that she is hoping that the football field will be 100 percent gopher-free by this summer.
“Our number one priority always is student safety,” said Backman. “We wanted to make sure our fields were in the utmost condition for our athletes who play on them. Obviously we don’t want gophers popping their heads up while football players are playing or soccer players are running up and down the field.
“It should be perfect for our Denair Youth Football to start practicing in July,” added Backman.