FLORENCE — The full stands behind home plate and up the first and third-base line at Otto Thill Field on Saturday in Florence weren't surprising to see.
It was dedication day for the newly renovated field, after all. Not to mention the two-time defending Class B/C state champion Falcons were hosting perennial Class A softball powerhouse — and former Class B rival — Frenchtown.
But the community support that helped to make sure those stands were there for fans and the dedication of volunteers and donors to help revamp a playing field and facility that needed a facelift is staggering.
Especially when you consider nature fought them nearly every step of the way.
Less than a month before the Falcons were slated to host Thompson Falls in their season opener on April 6, more than a foot of snow covered the infield dirt and outfield grass at Otto Thill Field.
"I thought, 'There's no way this is going to be ready by April 6th or April 13th,'" said Florence girls basketball coach Duane Zeiler, who used his Bobcat snowplow to help clear the field in mid-March.
While pretty much everyone in the Bitterroot Valley digs out from some record snowfall this week, the school spring sports season — yes, spring — is scheduled to start on March 11.
But for volunteers still needing to put the finishing touches on Florence's softball field — dugouts needed built and a scoreboard needed to be installed, among other things — the snow seemed like a setback that might keep the Falcons without a true home field late into the 2019 spring season.
"We got a lot of work to do. Mother Nature kind of stopped us at the end of the year, and we were hoping to get an early spring," said Florence coach Rob Ralls in February. "We (were) kind of at Mother Nature's mercy..."
What's more, it was Mother Nature's doing that served as the catalyst for the new field in the first place.
Back in 2017, the Lolo Peak fire presented a very real threat to the town of Florence, forcing evacuations in the village west of the Bitterroot river. The firefighter staging camp was eventually set up on Florence's football and softball fields and the surrounding parking lot just west of U.S. Highway 93.
Over a month-long battle with the blaze that burned more than 50,000 acres of forest also took its toll on the turf below the fire camp. Florence's school was compensated for the cost of re-seeding its fields, but the grass didn't germinate in time for the 2018 softball season. Florence would have to defend its 2017 state title from the public fields at Hideout Mountain Park.
While the Lolo Peak fire, and the Herculean effort by the firefighters to repel the blaze, didn't destroy Florence's softball field, it did help spark the effort to remodel the arena.
"It was the perfect time to get the whole project started. They were going to be off the field anyway," said Chris Kovatch, a Missoula firefighter, father of Florence freshman softball player Kylie Kovatch and one of the volunteers who helped get the "Field of Champions" project off the ground. "We had talked about this (project) well before the fires. (We thought) if they're not going to play on this anyway, let's start now."
From there, as Jason Larson — a project spearheads along with Kovatch, Jay Wood, and coaches Scott Byrne and Ralls — said, things, "Seemed to snowball."
Plans were drawn up and posted to the Florence-Carlton Field of Dreams Facebook page on May 28, 2018. Then came the demolition of the degraded dugouts and the work parties.
"I thought to myself, 'There's no turning back now,'" Larson said at Saturday's game. "When you start to bring people in, it seems to snowball. This was all done with private donations and time.
"...You really lean on your friends and I'm hoping I can reciprocate someday."
Kovatch said over $100 thousand in private donations from individuals and local businesses as well as grants were received for the completely volunteer project. That doesn't include the countless hours of free or discounted material provided by numerous area businesses and the gratis labor given by local contractors, parents and community members.
About 2,000 dump truck loads of fill dirt was carted in at no cost by J&J Custom Construction. Kovatch estimated the value of that at $200 thousand. One Horse Construction built the dugouts and the backstop — using donated old light posts from Southgate Mall in Missoula — at no cost. The Trapper Creek Job Corps didn't charge for their labor on the project.
"Including non-monetary donations and people giving us substantial discounts on all of our materials, and once the practice fields and walking path are done, I bet we're sitting somewhere between $300-$400 thousand," Kovatch said. "Honestly $500 thousand isn't a stretch at all when you consider people's time as money."
They, and the innumerable volunteers, were all honored on Saturday's dedication day. Several key role players threw out the ceremonial first pitch. The Florence softball team — All 16 on the varsity roster — sang the National Anthem. Florence Athletic Director Scott Marsh helped rake the field before he and coaches of the other Florence athletic programs served up free hot dogs and other food to everyone in attendance.
The day dedicated the new field. It was just as easily a celebration of the Florence community.
"It's impressive. The love and support our community shows for our school and our district is just awesome," Marsh said. "...I hope the kids recognize how much time and effort and money and everything that has gone into this because everybody that has put in the time, the money, the effort, they're doing it for the kids.
"This whole community is a pretty good one to be a part of."
That fact was indeed humbling to the players and coaches who took the field — for both teams — on Saturday. Senior Shannon Byrne, a returning all-state player for the Falcons and the game's starting pitcher, pointed to the surrounding crowd after the game while illustrating her point.
"Coming down here and playing on it and realizing, 'This is our field,' it's just amazing, especially considering what we had before," Byrne said. "For the community to come together to get this done was just a really cool experience to be a part of.
"...We wouldn't be who we are without our community. Florence softball is a community event. You see all the people coming out to support our games, and all the support at school. It's just awesome."
That softball program has done nothing but boost its backing by its play on the field. Since 1996, Florence has won 10 Class B state championships and has played in 13 title games. Despite the Falcons 9-3 loss on Saturday to Frenchtown — a squad that plays in the larger Class A classification and has an equally impressive state championship pedigree — Florence's opposing coach called the Falcons the clear favorite (to win the 2019 state championship) in Class B.
That would make three-in-a-row for the currently two-time defending champs, something Florence — the team and the town — has earned the right to call themselves.
Now they have a field, fit for champions, to match.
Editor's Note: Florence and Otto Thill Field were selected to host the 2020 Class B/C state tournament. Those games, next spring, will be played at the new field as well as the softball fields at Hideout Mountain Park.