BLACK HAWK — It's a jewel cut into the side of a mountain. And come Friday nights this all, that jewel will be shining bright above the casinos just down the road.
Gilpin County High School is nearing completion of a $1.7 million renovation to its athletic field, which includes a new six-lane track. Included is a set of lights; for the first time, the Eagles will play their home games on a Friday night. Under the lights.
"It'll light up the whole community," said Craig Ball, the head football and boys track coach at the high school.
Gilpin County, which encompasses both Black Hawk and its neighbor Central City, sits just south of Nederland. The county was established in 1861, two years after the discovery of gold in Black Hawk. It was named for William Gilpin, the first territorial governor of Colorado, and is the second-smallest county in terms of area in the state — due to its relatively large population at the time it was formed.
The high school itself was established in 1921, and it was relocated to its current location off Highway 119 in 1978. That same year, a natural grass athletic field was built on the west side of campus, overlooking a lake and mountainous terrain topped by a forest.
But that natural grass did present some challenges, especially at the elevation of 8,954 feet. They'd have to stop watering it by October, and the ground would often freeze under cold temperatures.
"We had a pretty rocky and hard field at the end of the year," Ball said. "So it was a pretty rough last month of the season. Not too many teams wanted to come play us here. But now I think they will."
In recent years, Ball helped to spearhead a campaign for a new field and track, citing the hazards created by maintaining a natural grass field at elevation, as well as the overall lack of a flat surface in Gilpin County. He also pointed to the recent growth of the school's track program, and the fact that that team didn't have an actual track.
In March 2017, construction started on the new field. Because plans called for a track, everything had to shift 30 yards to the west. That also meant digging out part of the nearby mountainside and using that earth as a way to extend the flat surface. It took the entire summer of 2017 to excavate, and it cost $300,000.
"We had to fill it all in," Ball said. "There's just no flat areas up here. It's either up or down."
The money came, in large part, from grants via the Colorado Health Foundation and the Allen Green Foundation.
"It's a nice flat area that we haven't really had in Gilpin," Ball said. "This will be something nice for the community to be able to walk and exercise, and that's part of the Colorado Health Foundation grant. It's a community health grant."
Construction on the field itself started in April 2018.
The project left plenty of room for the expected growth of the high school. Gilpin's enrollment was 102 in October 2015. Last October, it was 123. Ball said the school is adding five to ten students per year.
So even though the Eagles play 8-man football, they built an 11-man field. (The current cutoff for 1A is 150 students.) The field will have separate lines for 8-man, however.
In addition, it is also lined for soccer, even though Gilpin County doesn't currently have a team.
"And it's a community-oriented thing, too," Ball added. "We don't have soccer as a school, but we could still host a youth game."
The track, which includes a long jump pit, will also be done this fall, allowing the team to finally host a meet. Shoot, it will also allow them to practice on a real track. Asked where they had practiced in the past, Ball said, simply, "Hallways. Stairs."
But because of the cold weather, the most realistic chance of hosting a meet will come in May. With the state meet held in mid-to-late May each year, the only meets that month are typically "last chance" meets — events where athletes have one last shot to qualify for state. And an event of that nature at high altitude wouldn't exactly be a huge draw.
So Ball envisions a type of pre-state meet on their track, hosting athletes from all classifications who have already qualified for state, and want to train at high altitude just prior to the big event. "Come to elevation, and the next week you go to state, and go down," he said.
The field and track are only the first phase of a larger project at Gilpin County. The next steps include raised bleachers where the mountainside was dug out, and a press box looming above. (Right now, teams film from the aspen grove 30 feet above the field.)
Also included: a two-level fieldhouse, complete with a wrestling room and concession stand. The current wrestling room is in a log cabin that overlooks the field.
The new state-of-the art field will also provide much more cushion than the previous natural grass turf.
"With our other field, when you're talking about a health concern, later in the season, when you couldn't water — both middle school and high school had to practice on it," Ball said. "We don't have this other spot you can go. You go to West Grand, and they have three other fields. Most places have practice fields. We have to excavate to even get one. We just don't have that kind of stuff. It would really get worn down. So the amount of injuries we can save just from practice is going to be huge for us."
Completion is mere weeks away now, and the final details that are coming together. The school's shield "G" logo — designed by Ball years ago — is centered on the field, and the elevation is proudly displayed along each sideline. (Gilpin's new turf field will be among the highest in the nation.)
The facility will get its first real use when football practice begins on Aug. 6. It'll be home to a team which just completed its fourth-straight winning season, and made the playoffs.
The first game is Aug. 24 against Caliche, on a Friday night. Under the lights.
The new field, and the view it reveals, is breathtaking. On a quiet summer morning, a soft wind winds through the trees. Birds can be heard overhead. The lake behind sits still.
"Isn't it something?" Ball wondered aloud.