Saskatoon man named Sports Turf Canada’s sports turf manager of the year
Chris Zerebeski gets nod for top STC honour
February 2, 2023 By Mike Jiggens
Managing more than 300 sports fields in the City of Saskatoon can be a formidable task for the best of people. For Chris Zerebeski, the city parks department’s superintendent for cemetery, greenhouse, irrigation and sports field operations, successfully managing such an array of inventory recently earned him the title of Sports Turf Canada’s sports turf manager of the year for 2022.
“I’m just one piece of the puzzle,” he said in December, wishing to share the honour with his team of supervisors and front-line staff. “I have to give kudos to my staff for making me successful. I don’t think any manager can be successful without having a team under them that are skilled. Having those good relationships with your team is key for any leader in any industry.”
Zerebeski has worked for the city for more than 16 years in one capacity or another. He began his career in turf management at the municipal Holiday Park Golf Course where he mowed greens, maintained bunkers and performed several other maintenance tasks. Two years later, he moved to Saskatoon’s parks department where he became an assistant supervisor of sports fields for two seasons, gaining front-line experience in the maintenance of “above basic” sports fields, including baseball diamonds and soccer fields.
In October 2019, he began his current management position with the city’s parks department in which sports field management is among his various profiles. Within his jurisdiction are 308 city-owned sports fields that include ball diamonds, soccer, lacrosse, cricket and multi-purpose fields.
Class 1, 2 and 3 fields account for about 147 hectares of Saskatoon’s playing surfaces and are earmarked for higher levels of competition. The higher-level fields, or what are described as above basic facilities, are fully irrigated and are mowed, aerated and topdressed more frequently than basic fields. Class 1 ball diamonds, for example, are groomed Monday to Friday during the playing season while Class 3 fields get the same attention two to three times a week.
None of the city-owned sports fields has an artificial turf playing surface. Although there are synthetic soccer and football fields in the city, they are owned and operated by private entities. Zerebeski said, however, that samples of artificial turf were examined in 2022 for the possibility of installing synthetic infield turf areas at some point in the future.
The staffing complement of Saskatoon’s sports field program includes four supervisors and 32 maintenance employees. Most of the staff are seasonal workers which include a mix of long-term and short-term (students) employees. Four of the long-term employees are dedicated to the operation of heavy equipment, including skid steers, graders, payloaders and tandem trucks, that are used for large sports field construction projects.
An infield crew is tasked with weekly clay repairs of the batter’s box and pitching mound areas of higher-end ball diamonds. The grooming frequency of the city’s diamonds depends on their class. Diamonds are maintained on a rotation or schedule in which field edges are removed to improve playability and promote the safety of user groups. Additional torpedo sand or shale is added as necessary.
Shale is in limited supply in Western Canada, Zerebeski said, noting it’s especially scarce in Saskatchewan. Consequently, the city has experimented with a mixture of shale and torpedo sand that has produced favourable results and has gained the approval of the diamonds’ user groups.
“We have such high demand for fields, and we have limited fields, so that’s always a challenge,” he said. “They’re getting a lot of usage. Keeping the fields in good shape and not getting overuse is always a challenge.”
Finding the time to take fields offline for renovations is difficult when their demand is so high. Crews are pressed to limit any disruptions among user groups.
Zerebeski and his team meets each fall with Saskatoon’s user groups to discuss the things that went well during the season and to determine where improvements can be made. The meetings are beneficial to all parties, he said, enabling city staff to maintain proven practices and improve upon those that fall short of expectations. Drainage issues, for example, occasionally require improvement.
User groups are demanding, “and they should be,” Zerebeski said. “They’re paying for a service, and we try our best to work with them. Our service level with them dictates their user fees. We want to keep the user fees suitable for them so that it’s affordable.”
With its array of high-end facilities, Saskatoon plays host to several large tournaments on a regular basis, and dealing with the various organizing bodies is crucial to their success, he said.
Recent provincial and national tournaments have included the Under 15 AAA National Baseball Championships, Softball Saskatchewan’s Provincial Slow Pitch Championship and the FSIN Adult Soccer Championship. All three events were played in 2022.
Saskatoon is a growing city that is becoming increasingly more diverse, he added. This has led to a growing interest in cricket which prompted the city to add an above basic cricket field to its inventory at Pierre Radisson Park.
Among the challenges Zerebeski typically faces is Saskatoon’s climate. Getting fields ready for play by the beginning of April isn’t always easy.
“It’s a seasonal component here that makes it challenging. Our staff is very experienced and know what they have to do to get those fields back into play.”
Seasonal play generally ends in mid-September, but Zerebeski said the city sometimes sees abnormalities in weather patterns from time to time. The 2021 season, for example, was “super dry” which put pressure on Saskatoon’s irrigation systems. In 2022, the city experienced significant rainfall amounts in the spring, followed by a hot summer.
Charged with the parks department’s irrigation services, Zerebeski said new technologies are being examined, including ET watering technology that is being applied to Saskatoon’s fields.
“It helps us to manage our water resources a little better.”
Saskatoon’s soils vary across the city, and no single type is dominant, he said.
“We have good soil here because we’re in an agricultural area of Canada. It depends on where you are in the city. We have sandy loams. We also have fields that are clay-oriented which pack a little bit more.”
The city has undertaken several sports field and recreational projects during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the notables include:
- Enhanced cross-country ski trails to increase winter season usage in city parks
- Upgrading of homerun fences and backstops at Kilburn Park
- Significant ball diamond renovations at Parc Canada Park to reduce infield size to regulation and the conversion of infield material to shale
- Edge removal and the addition of torpedo sand to 20 neighbourhood ball diamonds
- Incorporation of compost from city depots into Saskatoon’s sports turf topdressing mix, in which 1,200 cubic metres were applied
- Major renovation of the ball diamond at BJM Park, including amendment of the infield to regulation size, conversion to shale and improved safety and turf quality by topdressing and adding sod in areas
Potential forthcoming projects include ball diamond upgrades at Kate Waygood, Sifton, Girgulis and Lakewood parks to improve game quality and player safety.
During the winter months, snow clearing and hauling keeps Zerebeski and his senior staff busy. Cross-country ski trail maintenance and planning for the upcoming playing season round out winter season work.
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