Officials counting on return from investment

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OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — The Oxford-Lafayette Sportsplex — Mississippi's newest venue for elite level youth team sports — is wrapping up a tryout of its own this spring.

The newly opened 73-acre complex of four fields for baseball and softball as well as a half-dozen combination soccer/football/lacrosse fields has moved slowly into the growing business of "select" youth sports with just a handful of events so far.

With the arrival of spring 2015, the multi-million dollar complex built by Oxford dentist and Brandon native Dr. Michael Perry should be ready to host a full roster of tournaments and other competitions, said Greg Lewis of P360 Performance Sports, a Ridgeland company Perry hired to line up and schedule team competitions.

"We're still in the process of putting them altogether," said Lewis, whose main responsibility for the Sportsplex involves scheduling baseball and softball tournaments.

The Sportsplex situated just off Mississippi Highway 7 South hosted the U.S. Fastpitch Association's Oxford Sizzlin Summer Blast.

By mid-July, "We'll pretty much shut down," Lewis said. "That will give us time to get the grass going."

The grass that will be growing includes about 40,000 yards of sod

Lewis said some fall tourneys likely will be scheduled on the ball fields, all of which have synthetic infield grass designed to allow or year-round play and help avoid rain-outs.

Also in the interim, installation will begin on a six-tunnel hitting and pitching facility.

Meanwhile, as the new complex ramps up for more intensive use, there's much Perry, Lewis and the rest of the Sportsplex crew must get right. After all, expectations are high for any facility that puts on tournaments and competitions for the best up-and-comers in Mississippi youth sports.

The Sportsplex will be joining the publicly owned FNC Park in Oxford and sports complexes in Southaven, Tupelo, Ridgeland, Pearl and Gulfport as destinations for youngsters who have developed skills sufficient to land them on "travel" teams, which in baseball are categorized by skill levels from Single A to Majors

Chris Snopek, principal of P360 Performance Sports and former infielder for Ole Miss and the Chicago White Sox, has the task of persuading the "select" teams from around the state, region and nation to play at the Oxford-Lafayette Sportsplex. Snopek said the complex won't be hard to sell as a tournament venue.

"It's a beautiful place," he said, and added that combined with FNC Park, Oxford is destined to become a notable destination for elite youth sports competition.

With Oxford already a destination for high profile cultural, academic and athletic events, Perry saw the potential to add another reason to visit Oxford.

Along with the bricks and mortars of new facilities, Perry's plan required creation of baseball, softball, soccer and football teams made up of youngsters with highest of skill levels.

Many of the youngsters come from Northeast Mississippi towns whose sports leagues lack sufficient numbers of elite-level players to form travel teams. So they come from as far an hour or so away to participate in the "clubs" that have been created as part of the Sportsplex plan.

"In today's sports world, there are many kids who want to play at a higher level than recreation sports provide," Perry said.

The complex has separate managers for each sport and licensed coaches for each team, said Perry.

"The most important aspect of competitive sports is coaching. It is no different than having a great piano player," he said.

Clubs participating at the Sportsplex "have an abundance of experience in coaching" to guide and mentor them, he said.

The youngsters practice several times a week and typically play tournaments over the weekend during baseball and softball seasons that run from early spring through the end of June.

More than 125 kids participate on the baseball side and an additional 200 or so take part in the Sportsplex's soccer offerings.

The Yalobusha Giants, a team of 12-year-olds, are among the baseball clubs that practice and play at the faculty.

"We're working to have a softball travel club as well," Perry said. "We'll see how that goes."

For football, the full-contact Lafayette Dolphins use the Sportsplex's converted soccer fields for practices and jamborees.

On the soccer side, the Sportsplex hosts the Mississippi Flood Futbol Club, whose teams often draw college recruiters looking for scholarship prospects.

"This is where the college coaches come to do their evaluations," Perry said. "College soccer coaches don't usually evaluate in school play."

Until now, a lack of opportunity for high-level play has caused a lot of North Mississippi's talented prep soccer players to be overlooked by recruiters, according to Perry.

"We can do the showcase tournaments" that will attract college coaches, he said.

Most evenings after he leaves his dental practice, Perry heads to the Sportsplex to take care of whatever needs done.

"First you have to build it, then manage it and market it," he said.

While he wouldn't say how much money he has invested in the complex, it would not be inaccurate to put the sum at more than $5 million, he said.

The Lighting Emitting Diode, or LED lighting, alone ran $2 million, Perry said.

He said he got the money he needed through Mechanics Bank of Water Valley.

Choosing LED lighting provided by Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.-based OEM Lighting for each of the fields was among the savviest decisions he has made on the project, according to Perry.

"These lights are unreal," he said.

He estimated conventional lighting for so many fields would run from $3,000 to $4,000 a month.

"My bills have been $160 or below," Perry said.

Perry shaved project costs in other areas as well, including an irrigation system that relies on water from wells that draw from nearby ponds

The LED lighting, synthetic grass and creative irrigation cost more money going in but will save substantially in the future, he said.

"I know there is not another complex in the state that has the synthetic turf, and I know there is not one that has the LED lights."

Deciding to make the commitment, in terms of both money and time, did not come easy, Perry said.

"My wife and I had some long discussions about this," he said. "I feel like it is a great way to give back to the kids of North Mississippi."

And bring dollars into Oxford, he said.

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Information from: Mississippi Business Journal, http://www.msbusiness.com

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