ST. GEORGE — Just as the morning sun began cresting over the trees, 74-year-old Dan Kelly began his pregame jog along the warning track along the ivy-weaved fence at the Canyons Complex with the glowing rocks of Red Mountain in the distance.
Kelly made his way from field seven’s right-field foul pole to the left and back, then got in some lunges. Slowly, other members of the St. George Senior Softball league began to trickle in, as did the sun’s rays. The Canyons Complex has long been recognized as a world-class facility for collegiate and competitive softball. For it to garner all-around national recognition as an athletic complex, it needed people like Kelly and his fellow sun-beaters.
The complex was one of 73 facilities nationwide to take home a Pioneer Athletics Fields of Excellence award in 2020.
“We’re grateful for the support of the community,” Derek Conner, who oversees field maintenance at Canyons, told St. George News. “The city gives us what we need to the job. They make sure we have everything we need. … We have people that are just bought in. It’s our park; we’re proud of it. If something goes wrong, it was us. If something goes good, it was us.”
Canyons is composed of seven fields just off Snow Canyon Parkway. It is laced with pedestrian trails, pavilions, planters and trees. Since its development in the early ’90s, the complex has developed into a hub for not just local activity but also national. It hosted the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Division I softball champions for 11 consecutive years starting in 2009. The World Senior Softball Championships have also called Canyons home, and the St. George-hosted Huntsman World Senior Games plays its softball tournament at Canyons. For its softball prowess, it has been named Complex of the Year by several national entities, several times.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, none of those marquee events came through in 2020. In their stead, others did. Canyons, along with the rest of St. George, popped back into action as soon as guidelines would allow, leading to an inundation of activity. Displaced softball tournaments forced out of their normal locations in Arizona, Nevada and California turned to St. George. Locals seeking an escape from their homes followed guidelines to get outdoors.
The senior softball players were back to their three-days-a-week schedule as soon as they were permitted, Kelly said.
“As soon as the fields were open, we were playing,” he said. “The city is nice to accommodate us. The complex, everybody talks about it. You just went 0-for-3, you bobbled an easy ball in the outfield, dropped the ball, two runs scored, but I turn around and say, ‘What the hell, no problem.’ It’s a great place to play ball. So what? Let’s move on.”
The city has made moves like allowing the seniors to play in the earlier hours of the morning to avoid the heat, even if it means coming in early for the grounds crew, who joke around with the players. They’ve provided the league with an on-location storage space and nets to place in front of the pitcher’s circle.
The workers also put in full days to accommodate even more. After the seniors concluded, the work crew was right back out with gator trucks to drag the infields and re-chalk the foul lines for league play later in the day, even as temperatures began to climb.
“We have games all the time, almost every day,” Conner said. “The hardest part is just keeping the maintenance up from the heavy play. A lot of players, a lot of kids running around, climbing trees.”
Heavy, year-round use of all seven fields gives Conner and his crew enough work. Making it even harder is the range of temperatures the area goes through, dipping to temperate in the winter and skyrocketing in the summer. The crew uses two types of grass, one that does better in the winter and another for the summer. They have to overcome water issues, heat issues and more to keep the facility pristine and award-worthy. These obstacles must be overcome by every facility in the area, prompting Conner to note that the accolade is a success of the entire department more than just one of its locations.
Canyons is the first St. George facility to win a Fields of Excellence award and the first in Utah since Lone Peak High School in 2011. The awards page on Pioneer Athletics’ website pens the following message to its 73 winners from across the U.S.:
In a year that challenged us all, Pioneer Athletics is honored to announce 73 winners to their 2020 Fields of Excellence awards. When faced with the unknown, you adapted, you delivered and you exemplified excellence and dedication to your organization and communities in 2020.
Conner and his crew saw their regular challenges and then some in 2020. But by all accounts, they were happy to do it and took pride in it. For their efforts, they got to hang a banner in the rafters of their garage after watching so many teams get the same kind of hardware thanks to the crew’s efforts.
“We love the park and appreciate being able to be here. Getting to work in a park, what gets better than that?”
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.
More information on the complex and the award is in the story below.