WESTERLY — Matt Moretta savors that single moment, the seconds before he runs onto the field for a Westerly High School home football game.
Moretta, the senior captain, and his teammates touch the Sal Augeri Sr. plaque — a tribute to the man who once coached the Bulldogs and for whom the field is named.
“It’s a ritual,” said Moretta, 17, a tight end and defensive end. “I’ve missed that. I’ve missed the home crowd. I’ve missed the home field. It makes a big difference.”
Tradition will return to Augeri Field on Saturday for the first time this season after the Bulldogs were forced to play their first two home games on the road because of construction on the home-side bleachers.
Officials announced this week that the bleacher renovation project, which began in July, was complete enough and the new bleachers and press box were fully safe for public use, allowing Westerly to host Warwick Veterans Memorial on Saturday at 7 p.m.
It was welcome news to the team’s seniors, who originally weren’t scheduled to play the first home game of their final season until Nov. 1. The Bulldogs played their Sept. 20 scheduled home game at East Greenwich High School and their Oct. 19 home game at Stonington High School.
The game against Warwick Veterans also was supposed to be played at Stonington High before officials sent word that the project was ahead of schedule.
“I am beyond excited,” said senior captain Charlie Elliott, an offensive guard and defensive tackle. “Being a senior, you want to play at home as much as you can. Seeing everyone in the community cheering in unison, it gives you the strength to go that extra mile.
“There’s just something about running onto the field and seeing that big, brown ‘S’ for Stonington. You know it has no relation to Westerly, and you’re not really playing football in the heart of your community.”
While the project is not officially complete because of a few items that still need to be addressed, the home-side bleachers will be open and safe, Athletic Director Jamey Vetelino said.
“The amount of use the bleachers get and the fact they were semi-outdated, this was such an important project to me,” said Vetelino, who is in his ninth year as athletic director. “There were definitely safety concerns. I’m happy fans will be walking around, doing whatever it is they’ll do and I won’t be holding my breath.”
The renovation project has been a priority for the district since 2004, and began in earnest last fall with an initial review and cost estimate.
There were a number of issues with the old bleachers, which hadn’t been replaced since the early 1980s. Vetelino said a few spectators had been injured breaking or falling through the bleachers in the last five years. Others cut their heads while trying to walk below the bleachers. The upper level of the press box had also been closed for safety.
The new aluminum plank bleachers will be up to date in terms of spacing, support and safety features. The final capacity of the new bleachers will be around 820, and they will include wheelchair and companion seating.
There’s also a spacious new press box.
Jim Lathrop, the town’s finance director, said the project cost around $560,000. He said that district business manager Deb Bridgham worked closely with the Rhode Island Department of Education to secure 35 percent reimbursement for the project.
Lathrop also gave a nod to Sal Murano, the district’s purchasing agent, who oversaw the project and played a role in getting the varsity football squad on the field a week earlier than planned.
Senior quarterback and captain Scott Liguori is looking forward to playing on Augeri Field on Saturday night. “It’s nice to get our fans back to the field,” he said. “There is an energy that’s there.”
Varsity football was the only sport that the work affected because the team draws so many people to its games — more than 1,000.
Westerly High’s junior varsity and varsity soccer boys and girls teams were able to use the field throughout construction, as were the junior varsity and freshmen football teams, by having spectators use the visitor-side stands.
Tonight at 6, Westerly High’s girls soccer team, celebrating Senior Night, will play on the field and the home-side bleachers will be open.
Vetelino said, “Although we had good attendance at the Stonington game, and it’s not far away, it still eliminated groups of fans. Our older fans, for example, had difficulty getting to the game.”
Added Bulldog senior captain Tom McGuire: “We had a good fan base at Stonington, but it’s definitely good as a senior to get that extra game on our field.”
On Nov. 1, before Westerly’s home game against Coventry High, the seniors will be honored. Those involved with the bleacher project will be recognized, too.
“Running onto the field, that will be my big moment,” Elliott said. “Especially in high school, playing in front of your fans on your field is good for morale. It feels like we’ve been playing in our enemy’s territory. Although, it was wonderful that Stonington let us use their field, and we’re very grateful.”
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