One time, she snagged one of the brooms, and her parents captured the moment with a picture. Emery gazed into the outfield, holding the broom with its head upside-down in the dirt, red bristles reaching into air.
Few kids have access to a collegiate baseball field to play on, but Congelli said for Emery, it seems normal.
“I think looking back on it later on when she’s older she’s going to be pretty privileged to be out there,” he said.
Arriving at Boshamer Stadium at 7 a.m. for an evening game, members of the grounds crew pour hours of grueling work into creating ideal conditions for the baseball team.
Congelli said it can be difficult to balance the demands of his work with taking care of such a young child. But he makes up for it in away-game weekends when he has a break. And in moments like this one, when he can let Emery play on the field.
“Not a lot of people can take their kids to work, so it’s pretty special to bring her out there with me,” he said.
It’s pretty special for Emery, too.
‘This is important’
First things first, head groundskeeper Casey Carrick checks the weather.
Every piece of field preparation — from choosing a grass pattern to watering the dirt — relies on planning around rain. So each morning, Carrick will check the forecast several days ahead to make sure he’s ready.
Thomas Geer, grounds supervisor for Bryson Field, said rain changes the way they water the dirt. It’s up to the grounds crew to adjust little aspects of their preparation and keep the dirt from turning into mud.
“We live by the whims of the weather, basically,” Geer said.
On a game day, the grounds crew arrives at Boshamer Stadium at 7 a.m. and meet to set a plan for the day. Then, they get to work.
During the week, three people will work on the field, but around seven will help out during a game. They start with mowing the grass to touch up the pattern they recently burned into the field.
Geer said members of the grounds crew design the grass patterns for games. Designers draw inspiration from major league fields, other college fields and even football stadiums.
When UNC played Notre Dame from May 13-16, the grounds crew designed the pattern together for the televised series finale. The end result — perfect bars of grass that looked three-dimensional the way the different shades of green wove together.
“We like to try something different every game, or every series,” Congelli said.
Carrick said they don’t go more than two days without mowing when the team is in season. But even with all the work they put in, the grounds crew does not spend the bulk of its time on grass.
“Grass is the easy part,” Carrick said.
When the grounds crew doesn’t have to prepare for a game, their work will range from re-sodding, to fertilizing the grass, aerating the field and rolling the field so it absorbs less water. And they have to plan all that around the baseball team’s practice schedule.
Even during the baseball team’s offseason, the grounds crew works with the field, growing Bermuda grass and re-sodding while keeping the field pristine for summer camps. When the baseball field doesn’t demand much attention, the grounds crew will turn their attention to UNC’s other athletic fields — including Fetzer Field, Navy Field and Kenan Stadium.
The hardest part of the job is watering the dirt before a game, Geer said. Too much water will stall a grounder or slow down the players as they sprint to the bases. Too little water and the ball will whiz by the infielders too quickly.
But how do you know how much water to use?
“It’s all by feel,” Geer said. “All of it. Feel and experience ... You do it based on your experience with similar days, how much you wet it the day before.”
During the game, their job is over. But that doesn’t mean they can fully relax.
Congelli said he checks the weather on his phone during games in case of an unexpected shower. If a storm comes, he will help ready a tarp to pull over the field for a potential rain delay.
And when he watches the game, Congelli said he sees it differently.
“Before I just kind of watched the ball, and that was pretty much it,” he said. “But now I kind of pay attention to all the little tiny details in the grass and the dirt and all sorts of things.”
The ball’s bounce when it lands in the dirt or a player’s speed when he slides to a base — little details a fan might overlook — do not escape Congelli’s eyes.
Carrick grew up playing baseball with his brother and sister. He said working on the grounds crew has changed the way he sees the sport.
“It’s a lot more work than I thought it was when I was playing,” Carrick said. “When we were playing, it was just a game. Now, this is, you know, this is important. We take this very seriously.”
‘We love doing it’
When Carrick started college at N.C. State, he didn’t know what he wanted to do.
“All I knew was I wanted to be outside,” he said. “I didn’t want to have a desk job. I didn’t want to be inside.”
After working at a golf course the summer after his first year of college, he knew his career path. He loved the grass and the outdoors. So he changed his major to turf grass management and started working for N.C. State’s grounds crew before getting a job at UNC in 2010.
Carrick said he loves being outside and he enjoys working with so many sports teams. But the people he works with make the job fun.
“In the season, we’re here with each other more than we’re here with our families,” Carrick said. “These guys are putting in 15, 16-hour days on a Friday and Saturday and another 12 on a Sunday, so we got to get a long or there’s going to be trouble.”
Geer estimated they each work close to 80 hours per week when the team is in season. But long hours were the only negative thing he mentioned about the job.
“We love doing it,” Geer said. “We love working together. I’m as close of friends with the guys I work with as I am with friends I grew up with my whole life.”
Born and raised in Chapel Hill, Geer said he grew up a Tar Heel fan. So when a couple of coworkers alerted him to a job opening at UNC’s grounds crew, he jumped at the opportunity. Now, working surrounded by friends and serving his first year as grounds supervisor, Geer is happy he took the job.
“We have a really solid group of young, you know, kind of, committed, excited guys happy to work in this environment,” Geer said.
“It’s like being part of the baseball team.”
‘A deep-seeded reverence’
Spending so much time at Bryson Field, the grounds crew has gotten to know the UNC baseball team well.
“We watch every game,” Carrick said. “So we get into it. I guess you could say we’re some of the biggest fans. We don’t miss a game.”
Geer said this year’s Tar Heel baseball team has been fun to watch.
“The biggest difference anybody near the team will tell you is positivity,” Geer said. “These guys happy to be here, happy to play baseball for Coach (Mike) Fox, for UNC. It’s pretty unique.”
The UNC baseball team has hit a rough patch, finishing 13-17 in the ACC after boasting a 5-1 start in conference play, costing the Tar Heels a spot in the ACC Tournament for the first time since 2010.
But the Tar Heels’ perseverance through the difficulties has made them Geer’s favorite UNC team he’s watched.
“They were really hot out of the gate, and they came down to Earth pretty hard,” Geer said. “But they’re as resilient as they come. They’re super excited to be here. They’re really a pleasure to watch.”
And this team, like other UNC baseball teams before it, appreciates the hard work of the groundskeepers.
“At baseball, there’s, like, a deep-seeded reverence with and for the grounds crew,” Geer said. “We do all this stuff for them and they really appreciate us. So we’ve got a tight bond.”
Congelli said Fox and his players regularly express their gratitude for the grounds crew, and some fans will find the groundskeepers during games to say thanks.
“We get a lot of fans come to us and just say how awesome the field looks,” Congelli said. “And sometimes the fans can’t believe that it’s actually grass when they’re actually standing right here it looks so fake to them.”
Congelli said it’s a big compliment for the grounds crew to hear such praise for their final product.
Grass so perfect, you can’t believe it’s real.