New bleachers being installed at Veterans Park’s Al Cowell field Sept. 5, 2017 should improve the viewing experience for spectators. (Staff photo by Rob Anthes.)

Jeff Plunkett has long considered Veterans Park a sleeping giant when it comes to hosting athletic events and, with full support from Mayor Kelly Yaede, he has rousted the giant from its snooze and is giving it renewed relevance in Hamilton Township and beyond.

Over the past year, the Hamilton recreation director has overseen facelifts at DeMeo baseball field and Cowell soccer field to the point where events other than those involving township teams are taking place there.

DeMeo hosted the Mercer County Tournament baseball finals this past spring, and Cowell will host the Mercer County Tournament lacrosse finals next spring. American Legion baseball is discussing having its Final 8 state championships at two sites, and Plunkett hopes DeMeo is in the running for that.

This fall, is that every boys’ and girls’ high school soccer game between township teams will be part of a doubleheader under the lights. First up was Nottingham and Steinert, which played on Sept. 15. The other games take place this month. Steinert meets Hamilton Oct. 12, and Nottingham takes on Hamilton Oct. 16. The first games will start at 5:15 p.m., with the second games beginning 30 minutes after the first’s completion.

Yaede said the Veteran Park upgrades were a must in order to attract state and county events while also providing for township high school athletes. Plunkett added that attracting bigger events to the park could stimulate the township economy, with the out-of-towners coming to patronize Hamilton shops.

“We’re a large market town in (youth) sports terms,” he said. “We can’t think like a small-market town. This was a proven point at DeMeo in the spring. The crowds were tremendous, people want to play there, the kids want to play there. If we can get some bigger state-wide events here, it will help the restaurants, help the hotels.”

Needless to say, the high school coaches are thrilled with what it can do for their programs. Hamilton is one of the few remaining municipalities in Mercer County without lighted fields.

“It’s nice to see a neutral field for our township schools to share,” Hamilton West boys’ coach Chris Morales said. “Hamilton being as big as it is, with three distinct high schools full of pride, people tend to stick to their part of town. Having a field at the iconic Vets Park that’s shared by all three schools really creates a healthy rivalry through exposure in the community.

“You go to neighboring towns, and virtually everyone has lights on their field. There’s something really special about playing under the lights, and this gives our players the opportunity to do it at home, in Hamilton.”

Steinert boys coach Anthony Tessein thought along the same lines. “Each year the games against Hamilton and Nottingham are the most intense we play, and I want everyone in the township to see it,” he said.

Plunkett hopes to bring some food trucks in for spectators to add to the atmosphere. There is also charity involved. The matches are being called the Patriot Games as the teams will wear red, white and blue socks and also sell T-shirts as a fundraiser to benefit the Hamilton Township Patriotic Committee. Those funds are used to promote patriotism by purchasing and maintaining various veterans memorials throughout the park. There is also talk of a 50-50 event at all six games, with those proceeds also going to the committee.

Steinert girls coach Mike Hastings feels that exposing younger players to the games in such an atmosphere will help encourage more to come out for the high school teams.

“Upgrading the facilities will make kids want to play more,” Hastings said. “I think soccer is finally making the strides in this country with the success of the national teams and the emergence of MLS. So locally, to have a very nice pitch to play on under the lights, will make kids want to be part of that experience.”

Plunkett is in his second year as recreation director. His predecessor, Mary Flynn, had been laying groundwork for the upgrades, and when Plunkett took over, he threw all that he had into the project. Flynn became the township’s economic development director.

“It’s always been my dream and my desire to do this,” Plunkett said. “I told the mayor that when she offered me the job, and she’s been 150 percent supportive of it and has backed me up all the way. I’m still the health officer and that’s been great; we have a great nurse practitioner who helps me with that and frees me up to do this.”

The upgrades at DeMeo drew rave reviews as games were played there all summer, including the 15-year-old Babe Ruth state tournament, a Veterans Appreciation Day triple-header with all three township American Legion teams, and several other baseball games. The most notable improvements were bleachers behind home plate, elevated bleachers along the first and third base lines, a new scoreboard and sound system and new foul poles. The entire field was wind screened in, and the infield was overseeded.

As for Cowell field, it was shut down for a year until last spring, when several lacrosse games were played on it. The field was over-seeded, fertilized and aerated, and Plunkett said, “we made it into what we feel is as good a grass surface as there is in the area.”

There is also a new sound system and a multipurpose scoreboard. Portable goals have been added with nets behind the goals to prevent balls from flying onto the nearby paths, the entire field is wind screened, and the township’s high school logos are displayed on the fence like at DeMeo. Elevated bleachers are being added that will hold 800 people and feature handicapped seating, and clear shelters are getting installed over the players benches and the scorer’s area.

Nottingham boys’ coach Mike Braender said the improvements and lights offer a better atmosphere for games. “Hopefully there can be some more varsity level games there for the boys’ and girls’ teams in the township, and we can get some crowds out there. I think the coaches in town would get some of the middle school and even younger kids to come out and see where they may attend and want to play in the future,” he said.

Plunkett is all for that and is looking well beyond for both facilities. Field hockey and lacrosse will be played at Cowell, and he is also trying to get some high-level club soccer games to be staged there. Another venture is to procure college spring soccer games with Rutgers, Princeton, Rider and Seton Hall, which will serve as fundraisers. Concerning DeMeo, he has already reached out to the NJSIAA about hosting some, or all, of the state baseball finals (which are now in Toms River). He also wants to get the MCT baseball finals or semifinals back.

Plunkett notes that there may not be a more convenient complex in the state to get to, as I-295, the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike all lead to 195. Once off I-195, the only light one encounters is the left-hand turn at Whitehorse-Yardville Road on to Kuser, and there is ample parking.

There have been other upgrades at the park as well. The township continues to resurface the tennis courts and is adding eight pickle ball courts and a new skating park. A few miles away, it is putting an artificial turf surface on the putting green at the Golf Center behind the police station.

“We’re not shooting for second place,” Plunkett said. “We’re centrally located, and I think we’re more convenient than a Toms River. I want it to be number one, and everybody else wants it, so why can’t it happen?”

After all, a giant can only sleep for so long.