'Field of Dreams' to 'Friday Night Lights': Behind the scenes of the Shamrock Classic

Aaron Ferguson
In this Journal Star file photo from September 2015, Peoria Notre Dame and Normal West warm up before the inaugural Shamrock Classic football game held at Dozer Park in Peoria.

PEORIA — When No. 1 Peoria High and No. 6 Notre Dame meet on Friday night at Dozer Park, everyone’s attention will be on the two powers, and for good reason. Two of the best teams in Class 5A, reigning from Peoria, meet in a rivalry game. The action on the field is going to be a sight to see, due to the uniqueness of high school football in a baseball stadium.

“If you build it, he will come,” Kevin Costner said in "Field of Dreams." A high school football game inside a baseball stadium is a sight to see. It’s a vision that Peoria Chiefs president Rocky Vonachen had. When he approached Notre Dame about the annual event, there was immediate interest.

Last year’s Classic featured a thrilling comeback when the Irish defeated Normal West 56-52. Vonachen estimates around 300 fans from Normal came for the game, and around 3,500 total fans. This year’s matchup against Peoria High could be the biggest game of the year on and off the field.

“We see what works best for (Notre Dame) and try to target the best game for the fans,” Vonachen said on scheduling the Classic. “Ideally it’s against a Peoria-area school.”

It just so happens that the Lions and Irish met in a 36-28 overtime thriller last season. This year, all bets are off when the two meet with the winner getting a direct path to the Big 12 title.

This is bigger than a typical high school football game, it’s an event. All concessions stands on the third base side and home plate will be open, all suites are sold out and over 5,000 people are expected to come through the gates on Friday night. However, the majority of the changes occur on the field.

Head groundskeeper Mike Reno is in charge of transforming the baseball field into a football field. With the help of assistant Tyler Kuhn and event staff Wolfgang Oler, Dozer Park will channel its inner Friday Night Lights.

Reno has worked on events such as Super Bowls and when the NFL plays in London. As for playing football inside a baseball stadium, that isn’t new to Reno, either. He previously worked in Miami at Dolphins Stadium, which was home to the Hurricanes (college football), Dolphins (NFL) and Marlins (MLB.)

“I like to paint football fields and I like football better because it’s not my season,” Reno said of the transformation. “I like to do the football grid and mowing the lines.”

Reno and his team are responsible for putting up the goal posts, painting the yard lines on the grass, chalking the lines on the infield dirt and taking the protective netting down behind home plate.

One key part of baseball is the pitcher’s mound. When Notre Dame and Central play on Friday night, it sits between the 15- and 20-yard lines near the first base dugout, except it will just be a circle of dirt. Reno and his team had to use an excavator to take the dirt from the mound and then roll the area to make sure it was flat.

Weather could be a factor in terms of playing surface. The infield will remain tarped as long as it can be with rain forecasted, but the bigger focus is in left field, where the drains are located. This is the area around midfield for Friday’s game, which will likely see flying chunks of turf being kicked up due to the wet conditions. However, there will be plenty of time for the grass to heel in time for next season’s Chiefs home opener.

It’s becoming more popular for high schools to put in small video boards at their stadiums, such as Dunlap and Metamora. The Shamrock Classic features a gigantic video board with replay capabilities that will be used during the game.

“(Last year) the players were excited about it. Fans think it’s neat for a high school game,” Vonachen said.

Notre Dame and Central have become the two football powers in the city, and what’s shaping up to be the game of the year brings a uniqueness to it this year. Reno and his staff have done endless work to prepare the field for the game, and they will get to enjoy the atmosphere like everyone else.

“Notre Dame is really good at football,” Reno said of the game. “This year it’s going to be more exciting because you’ve got the public school against the private school. There’s probably going to be some animosity behind them.”

Tickets still available are $6 general admission tickets. The gates will open at 5:30 p.m. with seating going on a first-come, first-served basis.

Aaron Ferguson can be reached at 686-3207 or Follow him on Twitter @Sports_Aaron.