In with the new: Shenandoah University’s athletics and events center a ‘game changer’

Shenandoah University Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Bridget Lyons stands outside the entrance to the 77,000-square-foot James R. Wilkins Jr. Athletics & Events Center on Thursday during a media tour. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University announced its plans to open a new indoor athletics center in April 2016, broke ground six months later and gave the facility a name in April 2017. In less than a week, the James R. Wilkins Jr. Athletics & Events Center will be open for business.

The spacious 77,000-square-foot facility nestled next to Shentel Stadium along Interstate 81 is scheduled to open its doors for its first SU basketball games Wednesday with a free admission men’s and women’s doubleheader. On Thursday afternoon, looking out across the expansive field house that will soon host his team for the remainder of the 2017-18 season, Hornets first-year men’s basketball head coach Adam Walsh called the center a “game changer.”

“This is a piece that’s gonna put us Top 3  in the (Old Dominion Athletic Conference) in facilities, we feel like,” said Walsh, whose team hosts Randolph-Macon at 5 p.m. Wednesday. “That’s a great place to be. Our league is a very good league and to be able to gain an advantage somewhere, any advantage gain in a league like this for basketball is so important.”

The AEC dwarfs its predecessor, Shingleton Gymnasium, and replaces the outdated gym as the new home for Shenandoah basketball and volleyball, though the facility was designed to serve all 21 of the school’s athletic teams. That much is evident in the building’s enormity.

The rotunda on the southern end of the building serves as the primary entrance, and the main lobby opens into the sprawling 63,000-square-foot field house with a basketball court at its center. Scott Musa, Shenandoah’s assistant athletic director, said the AEC is the largest facility of its kind in a 70-mile radius.

Scott Musa, assistant athletic director at Shenandoah University, talks about the center's indoor running track and basketball court. Rich Cooley/Daily

“From a basketball standpoint, obviously, you feel like an itty-bitty thing right now in this big building,” said head women’s basketball coach Melissa Smeltzer-Kraft, whose team began using the AEC for practice on Jan. 11.

The AEC includes retractable bleachers that seat 1,600 people, more than twice the capacity of Shingleton Gymnasium, and features nearly 250 chair-back seats. With the bleachers pulled back, the field house is a fully equipped indoor track facility that meets NCAA specifications.

A six-lane, 200-meter track encircles the basketball court and includes eight sprinting lanes. A jumping pit was installed along the east side of the field house, and areas for throwing events and pole vaulting lie at the northern end. Outside of the basketball court, the entire surface of the AEC is MONDO rubberized flooring.

Musa said SU joins Roanoke College as the only schools in the ODAC with NCAA-certified indoor track and field facilities.

Shenandoah University Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Bridget Lyons said the school would “absolutely” pursue the chance to host ODAC championships in various sports inside its new facility.

Shenandoah University Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Bridget Lyons shows off the boys locker room during a media tour. Rich Cooley/Daily

“Why wouldn’t you, right? This gives us the capacity to not only host conference but NCAA events, as well, so any chance we get to host and put in a bid, for sure,” Lyons said, adding that doing so is “a great way to showcase the university and your athletic department.”

The AEC also includes batting/throwing cages for baseball and softball that can double as hitting cages for the school’s men’s and women’s golf teams. Lyons said the field house could also be used as an indoor practice/conditioning space for other outdoor sports during poor weather.

The venue is also built to host non-athletic events, such as SU’s graduation and other community events, and can seat around 5,000 people in such cases. Lyons added that SU has already fielded inquiries about using the AEC for high school athletic events.

“We really see this as not just a university facility but one that the whole community call really make use of in a lot of different ways,” Lyons said.

Musa declined to provide the final cost of construction of the AEC but said the school is “in the ballpark” of the initial estimate of $25 million.

Construction crews work to install banners inside center on Thursday. Rich Cooley/Daily

At the southern end of the field house, a pair of doors opens into a hallway that houses a new athletic training clinic (which includes a hydrotherapy room), laundry facility and locker rooms for the basketball, volleyball, indoor cross country and outdoor track and field teams.

Each home-team locker room includes individual wooden compartments for each player, a white board and an internet-ready smart TV.

“Our locker room in Shingleton was not good,” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “And now we have our own space and our kids have their own cubbies. I think they feel valued based on what that space looks like and feels like to them, and they’re really excited about it, of course.”

Musa said the AEC’s main building is just the first of three phases in building a centralized complex for Shenandoah’s athletics department. A section housing more locker rooms, a weight room and a larger athletic training center will be constructed on at the southern end of the AEC, he said, and offices will be added outside of the east wall. Lyons said the school would like to complete the second and third phases as soon as possible but added that she is “not sure at this point in time” when construction on those projects will begin.

A plan to install a video board on the southern wall of the field house that would rival the 20-by-30-foot screen at Shentel Stadium is also in place, Musa said.

The AEC’s namesake, Jim Wilkins, is a Shenandoah University alumnus, former Hornet athlete and a member of the school’s board of trustees. His father, James Wilkins Sr., played a key role in getting the school moved from Dayton to Winchester in 1960.