As a child, my father and I would take summer trips all over the United States and attend baseball games. It didn’t matter if we were seeing the Cubs play at Wrigley Field, or minor league ball in Akron, Ohio, we were just happy to see a new stadium.
The love of going to stadiums is something that I’ve kept. I still get excited to see bright lights off in the distance or to pass a stadium while on a freeway.
But my love for stadiums and fields doesn’t end with baseball. I have spent more than half of my life around Mother Lode League football fields. I started attending Summerville and Sonora games when I was in elementary school. I then played for Summerville for four years and, because of that, played on all the league fields at least twice.
Then, at 18, I was hired to be a play-by-play radio broadcaster, allowing me to broadcast games from every league venue. I did that for six years. Then in 2013, I switched to journalism, but the venues remained the same. So, I have gone to games at Mother Lode League venues as a fan, player, broadcaster and journalist.
During that time, I have started to know the ins-and-outs about each place. I know which place has the best parking and the best tri-tip sandwiches. I know where I can hear the best band and where to bundle up. I know where the fans are the loudest and where the best views are.
Now of course, what are my opinions and what I find charming, special or unique, might be different than what others may feel. But that’s OK. I’ve always liked going to stadiums and picking out the good and the bad and that’s what I’m doing with all six Mother Lode League venues. And with Linden no longer in the league, that facility is not on the list.
Now, here’s a journey that goes from Tuolumne to Sonora, Angels Camp to San Andreas, Jackson to Sutter Creek as we look at each Mother Lode League football venue.
Thorsted Field, Summerville High School
The field and stadium that the Summerville Bears currently call home is nothing even remotely close to what it once was. Midway through the 2010s, Summerville did a complete renovation to its entire facility, which included putting in a new artificial field, lowering and widening the stands, and upgrading the entire concourse. In the span of a year, Summerville’s facilities went from the outhouse to the penthouse.
Prior to the renovation, Summerville was perhaps one of the worst places to play and enjoy a game. The grass field was patchy, a dirt track surrounded the field, and the stands went seemingly a mile straight up into the sky. Only the brave would make the dangerous trek to the top of the Thorsted Field bleachers.
Ever since the renovations, Summerville home games are one of the more enjoyable games to watch an evening of football. The concessions are filled with a good variety of snacks, and the new field, with the black end zones and a big bear claw logo at midfield, looks like it could be from a small college and not a high school.
Cons: One of the worst things about going to a Summerville game in Tuolumne is something that is completely out of anyone’s control. By late October and early November, the weather at Summerville can get outright cold. The cold Tuolumne air can make even watching the best game unbearable. Once the sun goes down, the temperature drops quickly and can make for an unpleasant evening.
Pro: Summerville has perhaps the best view in all the Mother Lode League. Even with the bleachers not as high as they once were, the view is outstanding. From a seat, the sight of Duckwall Mountain in the distance is worth the price of admission. Many high schools have backdrops that consist of buildings or maybe some trees, but not Summerville. It would be hard to find a more beautiful backdrop than what can be seen in Tuolumne.
Dunlavy Field, Sonora High School
Since Sonora rejoined the Mother Lode League in 2014, the Wildcats have not lost a league contest. By that one fact, Dunlavy Field is the most difficult place to play in the league. Sonora’s lone league loss in six years came on the road against Amador.
For years, Sonora had a natural grass field. But in the spring of 2005, NBC had a show called, “Three Wishes” that came to Sonora and granted local wishes. One of those wishes was for the high school to get a new playing surface. The wish was granted, and the Wildcats got artificial turf installed. That turf didn’t last long, and the once beautiful surface became worn down and ugly.
Sonora got its second artificial surface later in the 2010s and once again returned to one of the better-looking facilities in the area. What makes Dunlavy Field unique is the cement bleachers, which were built in the 1930s. With no visiting bleachers on the other side of the field, both home and away fans share the grandstands. However, the seating area is so wide, there isn’t too much issue with opposing fans rubbing elbows with one another.
One tradition that Sonora has is entering the field from the stands. For big games, the Wildcats make their entrance by coming two-by-two down the middle of the grandstands, which always seems to be enjoyed by the fans.
Like Summerville, the view at Dunlavy Field is that of a mountain and a campus building with a mural painted on it. It’s another terrific Tuolumne County field.
Cons: Parking at Sonora games can be difficult. There is a parking lot close to the field, however, it does require payment. There is free parking, but it won’t come without a bit of a hike. Showing up early would be the best way to get good parking, as a late arrival may leave fans searching for a place to park.
Pros: It doesn’t matter how good or bad the Wildcats are, there’s one thing that is always a guarantee to be great and that’s the marching band. At one time, Sonora’s Golden Regiment Marching Band had more than 300 musicians. The band got so large, there wasn’t enough space in the stands, so they moved to bleachers behind an end zone. While the size of the band isn’t what it once was, the Golden Regiment supplies a home-field advantage that is unmatched by any school in the league.
Dorroh Field, Bret Harte High School
Like Sonora’s Dunlavy Field, Bret Harte is on its second round of artificial turf. After a recall of the initial turf took place, Bret Harte got a replacement turf that was even better than the original.
Bret Harte has a nice facility with wide home bleachers that are not too steep. The walk to get food isn’t a long one and Mike’s Pizza is one of the favorite items for sale at most games. Dorroh Field has one of the biggest parking lots in the Mother Lode League, but it is across the street, so waiting for the light to signal to walk can force fans to wait a little longer before entering the facility.
Cons: Bret Harte hasn’t had many winning seasons in the past 20 years. The last league title came in 1999 and that was shared with Calaveras. With so many losing seasons, it’s hard for community excitement to be what it could be. Fans are pumped at the beginning of every season, but when losses pile up, it’s hard for the atmosphere around Bullfrog games to be as high as it could be.
But that also shows the level of dedication Bret Harte fans have. Since 1929, Bret Harte and Summerville have the fewest league championships (7) and yet, the Bullfrog faithful do their best to stay positive and support their team.
Pros: Bret Harte might be the most enjoyable place to watch a road game for visiting fans. At Summerville and Sonora, there is no visitors’ side. Calaveras, Amador and Argonaut all have separate sides for the visitors, but not nearly as nice and accommodating as Dorroh Field. At other venues, getting food or going to the bathroom can be a nuisance for visiting fans, but that isn’t the case at Bret Harte.
Frank Meyer Field, Calaveras High School
No field in the Mother Lode League has had more league champions than the field in San Andreas. Calaveras has 36 league titles in its name, which is 12 ahead of the next school. When it comes to Calaveras football, winning is expected.
Frank Meyer Field got some renovations in 2005, which included a new artificial turf field and upgraded seating for the visitors on the opposite side of the field.
While Calaveras might not be as aesthetically pleasing as other fields in the league, the atmosphere during home games can outweigh any eyesore. The home stands are typically full for each home game and can often become loud and vocal.
One view that is easy on the eyes comes around every October. Behind the visitors’ bleachers, a row of trees stretches from nearly goal line to goal line. When those trees change colors and it’s a cool-but-not-cold night, it’s hard to not enjoy the moment.
Calaveras also doesn’t mess around when it comes to food. From tri-tip and baked potatoes, to fresh popcorn and warm drinks, the lover of food won’t be disappointed.
Cons: The fact that Frank Meyer Field is condemned and thus unplayable, is a bit of a downer. Until a new field and track is installed, there will be no home games at Calaveras. And because of that, it’s hard to think of anything worse.
Pros: After each game, regardless of the outcome, the Calaveras players and coaches stand in front of the home crowd and sing the school song, while the Calaveras band supplies the music. To bond together and show pride in the school, gives a very nostalgic feel that doesn’t happen at many other places.
Dan Barnett Field, Argonaut High School
Dan Barnett Field has had some big changes over the years. It was the last field in the Mother Lode League to get lights, but it was the first to get a professional scoreboard.
Like Amador, Argonaut still plays on natural grass. That grass can get worn down as the season progresses and mixed with a little bit of water can lead to muddy games. And for a program that has a history of being tough, the dirty field fits right in with the tough style of play.
Over the past few years, Dan Barnett Field has had changes to its stands and track. The home stands have been lowered, and, while there doesn’t seem to be the same number of seats as there once was, Argonaut fans will still pack in tight for home games.
One bit of charm that Dan Barnett Field has is the honoring of Argonaut/Jackson Athletic Hall-of-Famers. On the fence by the scoreboard, banners of the school hall of fame members are on display, which is a terrific way to honor past teams and athletes.
And what Argonaut might be best known for is three words said by its public address announcer. Each time a fresh set of downs is rewarded to Argonaut, the loud and excited yell of, “FIRST DOWN MUSTANGS,” echoes throughout Dan Barnett Field.
Cons: The parking isn’t great. Most fans will have to park far off from the field and will have to make the long walk down to their seats. And it’s not just the fans who have to walk. The locker rooms might as well be in another county. Visiting teams have often walked down to the field and after the game, got on their bus and driven back up to the locker rooms. But again, anyone showing up early could get the best spots.
Pros: The scoreboard. Argonaut has a scoreboard that might not be found at most junior college fields. The video scoreboard allows fans something extra to look at during games and gives Dan Barnett Field an updated shot in the arm.
Amador High School
Friday night football in Sutter Creek is a different beast. Amador is only one of two schools in the league to still have natural grass, which automatically gives it an old-school feel. But having a grass field isn’t the only thing that makes Amador unique.
For fans who arrive early, there is parking available on the hill overlooking the field. By the time the varsity game starts, those spots are taken up by tailgaters or fans sitting in camping chairs. To see so many people sitting on the back of tailgates high above the field is a treat.
In keeping with the theme of old school, Amador also has old-school goal posts. Most football fields have updated goal posts that are in the shape of a “Y.” But not Amador. The “H” goal posts are a fun blast from the past.
The home stands, while steep and narrow, when filled are extremely loud. When empty, a big “A” can be seen painted into the seats. Everything about Amador’s field feels like it’s out of the 1950s and the charm that is small town football.
Cons: The worst thing about watching a game at Amador is for anyone not rooting for the home team. The visitors’ bleachers at Amador are not tall, which makes it difficult to see the action on the field. Many fans need stand to see over the players standing on the sideline, which can lead to an unpleasant experience.
Pros: High school sports are all about traditions and that is front and center at Amador. On the home side of the field, there is a rock wall that gets painted every year. The rocks are painted blue and white and players can put their jersey numbers or name on the large rocks. Mixed with a blue “A” on the side of the hill, seeing the yearly tradition of painting the rocks is a uniqueness that is synonymous with Amador.
It doesn’t matter where a fan goes to watch a game in the Mother Lode League, there is something special about each venue. It’s also interesting to see what is common at each place and what isn’t. All schools have the first letter of the school or the initials of the school somewhere on display. Summerville, Sonora, Amador and Argonaut are on hills, while Bret Harte’s is on the press box and Calaveras’ is on the 50-yard line.
Each school has its own unique charm and character, which makes Mother Lode League football so special. Not seeing football in 2020 was difficult and the hopes of seeing it in 2021 are high. And once teams are allowed to once again take the field, the longstanding traditions and home-field advantages will be right there waiting