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Gifts from Polians, others spur St. Francis sports complex

St. Francis High School in Athol Springs has gained a reputation over the years for fielding competitive football teams.

Unfortunately, the school’s football field – on Camp Road, across the street from the main campus – hasn’t measured up as well. The lighting dates from 1978 and is dim. All the football, lacrosse and soccer games chew up the grass and often leave bare patches and muddy spots. Players suit up on campus and walk across busy Camp Road to get to the field.

But by this fall, all of that will change, thanks to several large gifts to the school, including one from Bill Polian, the former Buffalo Bills general manager, and his wife, Eileen.

Officials at the all-boys private Catholic high school that overlooks Lake Erie expect work to begin as early as next week on a long-awaited $4 million athletic complex that will include an artificial turf field, a field house, new lighting, a new athletic track and paved and expanded parking.

“We’ve talked about it for years. In some ways, it was a want. It now has become a need,” said the Rev. Michael E. Sajda, school president. “It’s a project that was overdue and needed to be done to keep us competitive with our peers in the area.”

Many high schools, public and private, have made significant investments in their outdoor athletic complexes over the last few years. Canisius High School, which competes against St. Francis in the Monsignor Martin Association, opened a new turf field for football and other sports in 2008 in West Seneca. This past fall, Grand Island and Niagara Falls high schools debuted new multimillion-dollar sports complexes.

St. Francis still needs to raise about $1 million to fully pay for its project. The $1 million gifts from Bill and Nancy Gacioch and from John and Mary Ann Mastrantoni, as well as a substantial contribution from the Polians, whose two sons graduated from St. Francis, allow the school to move ahead with confidence that other donations will follow.

The synthetic grass field alone is expected to cost $600,000 to $800,000. It’s the same kind of turf currently used at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park.

The all-weather running track will grow from six lanes to eight, with distances marked off in meters, in accord with today’s standards, instead of the old yard measurements that define the old track.

The two-story field house will include locker rooms, a concession stand, a training room, restrooms and a room for the officials, all on the first floor. The school’s Athletic Hall of Fame also will be located on the first floor. “I’m most excited about that,” Sajda said. “We haven’t had a place within the school where we could showcase our Hall of Fame.”

The second floor will feature a social room overlooking the field, with a capacity of 125 people.

While the track and turf will be ready for use by the beginning of the fall 2015 season, the field house probably won’t be completed until late fall.

The school plans to keep the metal bleachers, which were installed four years ago, but everything else will be overhauled.

“We said if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this the right way,” said Paul S. Bartell Jr., vice president of development and alumni relations, who also coaches the varsity baseball team. “We’ve always had good teams here. Now we’re getting a facility that matches them.”

In addition to the football, soccer, lacrosse and track and field teams, the new complex will be used by the entire student body in physical education classes. Bartell said the school expects that other programs will be able to use it. “Certainly we want it to be an asset to the community at large, as well,” he said.

The school has hired Schneider Design for architectural services and R&P Oak Hill Construction as project manager.