Though football season is months away, Staples High School football players and coaches huddled with town officials Friday evening at Staples' football stadium for a "groundbreaking" ceremony to mark the start of work to install long-awaited lighting for the field.

The Wreckers football team will play under the new fixtures during its home season opener on Friday night, Sept. 14, against St. Joseph High School from Trumbull, as it begins the defense of its 2011 Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference title.

"It's been a long time coming," said Marce Petroccio, Staples' head football coach before his squad's annual spring Blue/White scrimmage. "A lot of people have put in a lot of hard work to get us to this point. Now, we're going to have a community event with people coming to night football games. It's a fantastic feeling."

The permanent lighting at the Staples field will include two light poles on each side of the field at about the 30-yard line. Installation of the lights will begin next month and construction is expected to take about three weeks, according to Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman Andy Moss.

Installation of the lights will cost about $350,000 -- an outlay that will be entirely privately funded. Donors have so far pledged about $325,000, according to Patrick Kelly, president of the Staples Gridiron Club.

"It'll be a great, safe environment for kids to come to at night," Kelly said of Friday night games at Staples. "People will be able to see their neighbors. It's going to be a great community event."

Supporters of the football program are also seeking to raise about $250,000 to build a new concession stand at the stadium.

A handful of night football games have been played at Staples using temporary lights. But permanent light fixtures have never been installed at the school's football stadium, which can accommodate about 2,000 spectators, because of legal and zoning challenges over the years.

"I cannot wait for our first game against St. Joe's," said Jared Levy, a senior offensive and defensive lineman for the Wreckers. "It's going to be a good experience. We're definitely looking forward to it, because it's going to be our first night home game."

Community efforts to erect permanent lighting at Staples' stadium date to the late 1970s, but the project was blocked by a series of legal and zoning disputes until last year.

In November, the Board of Education and Planning and Zoning Commission approved a stipulated judgment designed to settle the litigation and allow plans for the stadium lighting to move forward. That legal agreement was backed by the town and a group of residents who filed a lawsuit against the town in response to a 2009 zoning amendment approved by the P&Z that had allowed the field lights.

The stipulated judgment permits lighting until 10 p.m. for eight "athletic special events" each year at Staples, including football games. In addition, the agreement allows lights to be used for playoff contests hosted by Staples' football team, weekday practices until 8 p.m., as well as two Saturday events. Other Staples sports teams -- including its soccer, field hockey and lacrosse squads -- will also be eligible to play under the lights.

"More people will be able to attend games," said Board of Education Chairman Don O'Day. "It's a great team and a great school, and this will just bring the town together."

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