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New look for ECU

Tuesday, June 30, 2009   (0 Comments)
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ADA — In recent years, East Central University’s athletic department had very little to ‘wow’ prospective recruits who visited the campus.

Norris Field is approaching its eighth decade as the home of ECU football, the Elvan George Building — which formerly housed both the school’s weight training facilities and football locker room — was starting to show its age, and the Kerr Activites Center is about to enter its fourth decade as the venue for Tiger basketball and, more recently, volleyball.

As a result, ECU’s coaches had almost nothing to point to when comparing their facilities to those of other schools in the Lone Star Conference, and those shortcomings consistently translated into more losses than wins in virtually every sport.

But when the 2009-2010 school year begins in August, the playing field — at least where it relates to recruiting — will be slanted a little more in ECU’s favor.

The school is putting the finishing touches on an ambitious program of expansion and improvements for athletics unlike anything attempted here in decades. An estimated $850,000 has been pumped into the project, with $525,000 of that total having been spent on the new Pat O’Neal Strength and Conditioning Center.

“It’s going to be one of the best in Division II athletics once it’s up and running,” ECU strength and conditioning guru Travis Reust said of the O’Neal Center, which is due to open some time next month. “It’s going to be a great recruiting tool because of the ‘wow’ factor. On a recruiting tour, one of the first places they go is the weight room, so this should be a great recruiting tool for all of our sports.”

Reust, an ECU graduate who worked at a number of Division I programs — including Colorado and Nebraska in the Big 12 — before returning to his alma mater just over two years ago, said moving out of the Elvan George — which had roughly 1,500 square feet dedicated to strength and conditioning — into the new 7,000-square-foot facility will make his job a lot easier.

“I was able to facilitate about 300 athletes at Elvan George with nobody being excluded — it was all about scheduling and our coaches working together,” he explained. “We all worked together, and everybody got it done. There’s no telling what I’ll be able to facilitate with this much space.

“It was tight in Elvan George, and now our equipment will be spread out the way it should be,” Reust said. “This new facility is going to be as good as any Division I program I’ve been at. Yes, Division I has more money, but we’re going to have just as nice a facility. It’s going to be just as nice as the one I had at the University of Colorado.”

Tim McCarty, who was ECU’s head football coach in 2004 and 2005 and was re-hired earlier this year to head the program after spending three years as assistant head coach at Kansas State, said the O’Neal Center compares with the facilities he had at KSU.

“Space is the key,” said McCarty, who coached the ECU football team to its last winning record (6-4) in 2004. “Our weight room at Kansas State was very similar in size, but ultimately it’s what kind of quality is coming out of that room. I’ve been telling some of our alums that we have probably one of the top five Division II facilities in the nation.”

Despite a late start, McCarty assembled a promising recruiting class in advance of the 2009 season, and he said the new O’Neal Center, coupled with improvements to the Elvan George Building and Norris Field, should make recruiting much easier in the years to come.

“When kids are looking and shopping for a school, one of things that is going to grab their attention is facilities,” he noted. “We’re recruiting student athletes, and they look at this facility and realize we’re committed to winning. They see themselves working out in a new, clean first-class facility.”

McCarty said the Elvan George Building had been “gutted” and totally remodeled, expanding the formerly cramped football locker room into a much bigger area that includes part of the old weight training room. In addition, the coaches’ locker room and meeting room have been upgraded, with a total price tag of $100,000.

“The building has been gutted and all kinds of changes made,” McCarty explained. “It’s going to be a top five facility when it’s finished.

“When you start trying to rate which one (improvement) is important, they’re ALL important,” he added. “We have new (aluminum) bleachers in the stadium, a refurbished Elvan George, and the strength and training room is incredible. You start doing things like that, and people start to take notice and want to be part of it. When you make this kind of commitment, it impacts a lot of things in a very positive way.”

Brian DeAngelis, ECU’s third-year athletic director, said the O’Neal Center and the improvements to the Elvan George Building are just part of an expansion and renovation for the school’s athletic facilities that also includes new bleachers at Norris Field, at the tennis courts and at the baseball and soccer fields. A new press box has also been built at the baseball field.

“(The O’Neal Center) is a gigantic step in a number of ways,” DeAngelis said. “One, it benefits the athletes who are already here; second, it frees up space in the Elvan George; and third, it give us a showpiece for recruits, because it will be one of the best weight facilities in Division II in the country. It helps us on multiple fronts. It’s rare that one facility can do that, but this one can do that.”

DeAngelis admitted that, as a whole, ECU’s athletics facilities still don’t compare with those at some other LSC schools, but he said the recent improvements represent an important first step in that process.

“It puts us at a more competitive level,” he noted. “I’m not going to say it puts us even by any stretch, because other places have newer stadiums and more modern facilities, but it puts us on a more competitive level, especially in football. We’re getting closer to what we need to compete at the highest level in Division II.”

And, while the recent improvements represent progress, DeAngelis said they are by no means the final piece of ECU’s athletic puzzle.

“That’s where me and president-elect (John) Hargrave (who begins work July 1) will sit down and decide what the next biggest need is in athletics,” he explained. “There are a lot of needs, that’s for sure.”

For Reust, the O’Neal Center is the first big step in his dream to put ECU on the map — both for its athletic success and as a training ground for future coaches.

“This is a strength coach’s dream — you’re talking about a brand new facility and I’m here doing it for my alma mater, a place that I love,” he said. “I might not be going out in front of 60 or 70,000 fans on Saturday, but I’m blessed to be able to do this in a place where my heart is.

“I’m just a small piece of this, but I was really fired up to get it done,” Reust added. “We’ve acccomplished a heck of lot since I’ve been here, and with this facility we should be able to accomplish a lot more.”

Although the ECU football players — who report for preseason practice Aug. 5 and open the season Aug. 27 at Nebraska-Omaha — haven’t had access to on-campus weight training while the O’Neal Center is under construction and the Elvan George Building is being renovated, Reust and McCarty said they don’t expect to be behind once preseason camp begins.

“The kids have been working on their own,” Reust said. “I gave every athlete a summer program, and they’re doing it on their on, wheter at a health club or somewhere else. That’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make to have the facility we’re about to have.”

“In Division II football, it’s rare that your whole team stays in town to work out,” McCarty explained. “Our kids go back to their hometowns and work out in their schools, and we have three places in Ada where they can work out. The only thing that’s missing is that the kids who are here in town can’t lift at our facility.

“We can’t coach them during the summer, anyway,” he added. “It’s all self-motivation for them whether they’re here or not. We try to make them understand that, for us to get better, they have to do that.”

McCarty said the support of DeAngelis and the rest of the ECU hierachy — including former president Dr. Richard Rafes — and alumni should make his job easier and the future of ECU football much brighter.

“It’s like anything — If you want to be good you have to look for ways to continually upgrade your program,” McCarty noted. “We’ve made a giant step forward, and I think everybody who is concerned with the program is going to be very pleased.

“As the head football coach, I’m very thankful to the ECU administration, alumni and friends for these facilities,” he said. “When you build facilities like that, our past players are excited and thankful for it, our current plyers are excited and thankful for it, and our future players will be excited and thankful for it.”
East Central University's new Pat O’Neal Strength and Conditioning Center, scheduled to open in July, is part of an $850,000 program of improvements to the athletics department designed to give the school more appeal to prospective student athletes and to better serve those who are already on campus.

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