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Gopher Menace Forces Cancellation Of Trans-Valley League Soccer Game
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Soccer referee Jose Suarez took a step deep into a collapsed gopher tunnel and stumbled to simulate the way an ankle would give out.

He shook his said in disbelief and pointed out the hazard to his partner official.

It was an awkward 4 p.m. scene at the soccer field on the Riverbank High campus on Sept. 26. Instead of whistling the start to the Bruins' fifth Trans-Valley League contest of the season, referees joined coaches and players in a methodical feeling out of the Riverbank pitch - testing the countless holes and ditches created by a mischievous band of gophers.

Before he broke the news to coaches, Suarez admitted what the conditions would ultimately mean to Wednesday's game.

"This field is bad, with ankle-deep holes so deep that I am going to have to cancel this game," he said. "There is no way we can play today with the field covered in these holes."

Suarez went on to inform both Riverbank coach Martin Gonzales and Hughson coach Jose Ramos of his decision. Gonzales scrambled to bring maintenance workers and school administrators to the field, but the hazard was too great for a contest to be played.

"I was really disappointed," Gonzales said. "I have been telling people about this field for years, so this isn't recent.

"I think we got lucky that the game was cancelled and it wasn't some kid with a broken ankle."

Ramos offered a sympathetic perspective of the situation, considering he had his own problem with field conditions in Hughson that weren't mended until it was too late.

"We had two serious knee injuries on our field, and it took that to have the field fixed the next year," the 12-year Huskies coach said. "It wasn't documented but it's known to the people in charge."

Ramos said Wednesday's referee-ruling was the first time he has seen a game cancelled because of poor field conditions. He said the current conditions were a serious risk to his players' health as they run across the grass without seeing holes.

Ramos wondered if the cancelled game would be postponed or ruled a forfeit in Hughson's favor, but ultimately TVL Commissioner Bill Inderbitzen informed both coaches the game will be replayed at a later date (Oct. 9).

A forfeit would have been a crippling blow to a Riverbank team on the cusp of an undefeated conference season at 4-0 and a high seed into the Division IV Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.

It's a thought that was in coach Gonzales' mind as he watched referees depart the field on Sept. 26.

"We have a championship soccer season that is being hamstringed by gophers," Gonzales said in dismay.

The Bruin coach said he intended to attend Tuesday's school board meeting (after The News went to press) to plead his case for drastic changes to the field. His plan to remedy the situation begins with maintenance workers collapsing the extensive system of tunnels and filling them with a mix of fresh dirt and sand to level the field of play.

The long-term fix will likely have to be reached in the offseason, when Gonzales hopes he can convince officials to rip out the grass, kill the gophers and lay new sod.

He estimated the cost to re-sod would be around a $100,000 project, certainly within the realm of possibility.

"When we needed a gym, I was all for it," Gonzales said. "When our football stadium was falling apart, I supported the new seats we built. When we needed new tennis courts I was behind that too.

"Well our field is completely collapsing, so we need a new field. They used band aids for so long, but they need to tear the whole thing down."

Riverbank High athletic director Jason Herrera acted quickly to ensure the first steps for a temporary repair to the field, but said a long-term solution would have to be approved by the school board.

"It was supposed to be leveled last summer but it never happened," Herrera admitted. "We have always had gopher problems, and the surprising thing is that we have several home games this year and we thought the field was playable until it was cancelled.

"After walking the field myself and seeing the field in more detail I could see why the ref had cancelled it. It was a potential liability and was in pretty bad shape."

Herrera said maintenance workers hurried to plug holes and hauled good dirt to the field the day after the cancellation. He hopes the work of his maintenance crew will be enough to host the remainder of TVL contests and likely postseason games, but admits poor conditions will be an ongoing issue until the gophers are removed.

"Everybody is on the same page," Herrera said. "We've known about this problem for a while and it is just worse than normal this year.

"Maybe it was a blessing in disguise that the ref cancelled it, because now we can keep an eye on it. We are doing what we can to fix the field so it can survive to the end of the year."