The Junction City High School Athletic Field was dedicated Sept. 24, 1965. On Friday, the stadium that was renamed to honor coach Al Simpler in 1983 will host its final high school football game, ending a 55-year run as the home of the Blue Jays. The team will start the 2021 season at a new stadium located on the new high school campus west of town.
“Friday nights are kind of special to the school and the community,” said JCHS activities director and class of 1991 alumnus Matt Westerhaus. “Obviously it’s going to be different in our new environment that we’re going to. And I think once we get there, we’ll make our own history and moments and I don’t think anybody will forget the moments and history that have taken place here at Al Simpler Stadium. And I don’t want anybody to ever forget that, because that’s history and those are moments and those are meaningful times and should be celebrated forever.”
The stadium was the home of both state championship teams — 1969 and 2008. It was the home for the four coaches who led Junction City since its dedication — Al Simpler (1958-80), Ron Hill (1981-89), Jerry Stuckert (1990-93) and Randall Zimmerman (1994-present).
“I think that that consistency has led to the success of our football program over the course of those many years,” Westerhaus said.
“Especially in a community that (has) people in and out all the time. So when you can provide consistency within a staff over a long period of time, I think that helps overcome some of that in-and-out process, because people are familiar with the expectations that are set within a program. And people coming in — people talk to people, so they know what everything is about, what to expect and where we’ve been over the course of the years.”
Prior to the construction of the field, the Blue Jays hosted games at Fegan Field. The grass field still is used by JCHS soccer teams for practice and by other youth programs throughout town.
The new field will “not replace Al Simpler Stadium,” Westerhaus said.
“Just like the new stadium didn’t replace Fegan Field,” he said. “It’s something new and it’ll be at a new environment for those students that go through that high school, that they will be able to cherish all those memories that they create during the time that they play on the new field.”
What makes Al Simpler Stadium, and the new field, special to the students at the high school is the fact that both are on the main footprint of the campus.
Classes are held regularly as weather permits — this likely will continue at the new school, Westerhaus said.
“I think that’s what creates the uniqueness of being able to have it on campus, and really calling it a home because, you’re there every day,” he said. “You’re practicing on the field every day, you’re utilizing the facility every day. And so those ties and bonds that kids have of putting in time, energy, effort — whether it’s football, track, weights condition, whatever it is — you have more buy in or tie in to that facility. And I think that’s what makes Simpler ... so unique, because people are using it every day.
“They remember the practices, they remember the workouts, they remember the games, they remember the competitions, they remember graduation— they remember those things,” he added. “Before we put turf down at Simpler Stadium, that place was hardly ever used for events. We used it for Friday night football, JV football, track. But even the little kids have had the opportunity to play on that field now. More people have been able to utilize it and call it home, if you will. I see the same thing happening at our new facility.”
The final game will be difficult, Westerhaus said, regardless of the final score.
“It is for myself. It will be (even) tougher for players and coaches who have coached on that and played on that field specifically over time,” he said. “Just because people hold things near and dear to their heart and it has a special feeling and meaning to them. So yeah, it’s going to be tough.”
Westerhaus also stated the resiliency of the program will continue into the future home of the Blue Jays.
“I know based off of our program, our football program and historically what we’ve been able to do over time,” he said, “I think we’ll be able to turn the new environment that we have, the new stadium that we have, into a very special place as well.”