"If you build it, they will come."
It was probably inevitable that someone would walk by and utter those now famous words from the baseball movie "Field of Dreams" starring Kevin Costner.
But Russell Koch, principal of Star Valley Charter School, doesn't mind, because that's exactly why he built full-blown football and baseball fields in a pasture behind his tiny, two-classroom school.
"We've been here four years, and every year there are rumors that we're going to close," Koch said. "But we have 48 students, both middle school and high school, and the field is a big plus for us."
The pasture that the fields are on belongs to Oscar Ezell, who grew up in the farmhouse on Ezell Lane next door to the school. His mother, who died two years ago, originally gave Koch permission to use the land, where corn, beans and sorghum once grew.
"It was all barbed wire pasture when I came here in December 2000," Koch recalled. "In April 2001, I was named principal and I came over and spoke to Mrs. Ezell, who was 94 at the time.
"She gave me permission to build a baseball diamond and the football field out here. All she said was, ‘No garbage on the field.'
When Ezell's mother died, Koch went to him to make sure he was still willing to allow the pasture to be used for athletic fields. The 74-year-old retired miner, who now lives in Globe, readily agreed.
"I wasn't using it and I thought that would be a good gesture to let the kids play there," the soft-spoken Ezell said.
Building the fields was a daunting task, but Koch, with the help of his students, went to work.
"I marked it off and then we put the barbed wire in a big pile and put rocks on top of it and we dragged it until it got real smooth," he said.
To keep the weeds down on the field, which is dirt to conserve water, Koch drags it about once a month. He marks the yard lines and base lines with chalk as needed.
"It depends on the weather," Koch said. "The kids come to me and they say, ‘Mr. Koch, when are you going to put the white lines back out there.'"
The lines are important to the kids for the obvious reason.
"When they have those boundaries on the field, they think they're in the NFL," Koch said. "Without the lines, they don't want to play."
But Koch thinks the lines serve a psychological purpose as well.
"You know how adolescent kids are," he said. "They need boundaries."
Koch says the fields work well with what he is trying to accomplish at the school.
"I was taught that every principal has to have a vision for their school, and I just saw this athletic field as something important for the kids to have a release," he said."
"It's nice to get off working (in the classroom) and come out here and play football or baseball," eighth-grader T. J. Stepp said.
The students have also taken responsibility for the appearance of the fields.
"It's theirs," Koch said. "They bought into it because they've done a lot of the work on it. They built the backstop, the benches.
"They patrol the area and pick up the papers and they work together."
Star Valley Charter School is an alternative school that will be exclusively grades 9-12 next year. Koch believes it fills an important niche in the community, despite the presence of the Payson Center for Success -- another alternative charter high school.
"PCS is a specialized school with computer-based instruction and not all the kids fit in with that," he said. "They have an excellent program, but they also don't accept freshmen."
Sage Gabel, a junior at Koch's school, likes the smaller size and the flexibility that allows.
"In a regular school you have so many people and you have to change classes," Gabel said. "Here you switch subjects, but you get to stay in one class all day and you don't have to spend an hour on each one. We can work at our own pace."
Although the Payson Unified School District operates PCS, Koch says there is strong cooperation between the district and his school.
"We work together," he said. "Sometimes charter schools and public schools have more of an adversarial role, but for us to be able to help one another in a small town is the best way to go."
But Koch is even more grateful for what Ezell has allowed his school to become.
"I think what he's done is really unheard of in this day and age," he said. "Considering the cost of land, he could charge us hundreds of dollars a month and make a profit out of it. He's such a precious man."
For Ezell, who still spends a few days each month at the Star Valley homestead overlooking the athletic fields, the reward is in looking out the window and seeing the pasture that was so much a part of his own youth once again nourishing growth.
Star Valley Charter School is located on Ezell Lane in Star Valley. Turn on Highline Drive at The Knolls, then go straight on Edison Way when Highline turns right. The school is at the end of the Edison cul de sac. For more information about the school, call (928) 468-1401.