Just down North Williamson Avenue, a shiny new building awaits the day when it can open its doors and greet the community.
The Schar Center, named after the family who donated the majority of money to build it, is the 5,100-seat arena that will be the new home of the Elon University women’s volleyball team and men’s and women’s basketball teams. The arena will replace the current, 1,600-seat Alumni Gym, which the teams and coaching staffs of those three Phoenix squads currently call home.
According to Director of Athletics Dave Blank, the building is a giant leap for the university.
“To see something like this on Elon’s campus – it’s incredible what’s happened at this institution, and this is part of it,” Blank said.
No date has been set for the grand opening of the arena, but Blank said that each team will use its first game of their respective seasons to break in the new arena. An official dedication ceremony will take place, but no date has been set for that either.
The Elon men’s basketball team will play its first regular season game in the Schar Center against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s powerhouse basketball team. Head Coach Matt Matheny said that the game has been in the making since the arena first started taking shape.
“There were plenty of conversations with students, with alums, with administrators about exactly how we should open the building,” Matheny said. “As the Schar Center became a reality, we wanted to have an opener that would draw as many people as possible into this new facility.”
According to Matheny, everybody chipped in ideas of how to do that. He said that there’s no greater opener than playing a program right down the road.
“We knew getting a mark name would be something that was not only great for Elon University, but great for Alamance County and the surrounding area,” Matheny said.
“Getting to play a top program like UNC will be a lot of fun,” said junior guard Steven Santa Ana. “Lot of motivation for the summer – just got to keep working because we’ve got a big task ahead of us against that, but we’re definitely excited and happy to open it up with that game.”
Filling the arena shouldn’t be a problem for the first regular season game against UNC, but could pose an issue when the big name leaves and the arena remains triple the size of the current Alumni Gym.
“I would say the litmus test is how are we going to go from 1,600 seats to 5,100 seats,” Blank said. “You know, the answer to that is exactly what is going to happen and then we’re going to grow into it, and it won’t be too many years until people will say, ‘I wish we had a bigger one.’ That’s what we hope for. It’s all part of the growth of Elon University. Just look at this campus over the last 35 years – it’s unbelievable.”
Blank said the Phoenix will be relying on the students to help make the dream of filling the arena a reality.
“We’re going to have upwards of 1,000 seats reserved for our students,” he said. “We’re counting on our students in a big way to come and support our events. But, if you think about it, we’re trying to give them a choice of where they want to sit. Do they want to be sideline or do they want to be endzone? We don’t want to tell them where to sit – we want them to be able to experience it.”
For Jake Young, the president of Elon’s student pep club, the Phoenix Phanatics, filling all of the student seats might be a tall task.
“It’s obviously going to be a challenge and we understand that,” he said. “We understand that it’s not going to change overnight, and it’s going to take dedication from our executive board, which we truly think we have. There’s a lot of enthusiasm around the exec board and we’re really excited to start turning this program into something you can be proud of.”
But Young said he hopes that fandom from other Phoenix sports will extend into the Schar Center.
“If football can have a good season and basketball is competitive against UNC, that could really help our organization out,” he said. “It’s a fantastic facility and we’re definitely excited to fill it up and be as loud as we can in there.”
For some members of the men’s basketball team, filling the gym is not a priority.
“Our goal is not to fill the gym,” Santa Ana said. “We enjoy the support that we have and we enjoy the people that come out. But, at the end of the day, we’re there to play, and whoever is there cheering us on, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of people there. We’ve got a big support group already – those guys will still support us whether that’s this gym or another gym.”
No matter where the patrons or Phanatics sit, having a building of this size will immensely affect the Elon community and Phoenix athletics.
Impact on Elon
Walking around the arena on the afternoon of April 24, Blank was impressed by the building.
“As many times as I’ve been in here, there’s still a ‘wow’ factor when you’re in the main arena,” he said. “The size of the main arena – there are 5,000 seats. I’ve been in a lot of 5,000-seat facilities that don’t feel like major arenas. This one has a great feel to it because of all the space.”
Blank remembers sitting in the space with former President Leo Lambert, reflecting on what this building will mean to the community.
“Every time we’ve come in we’ve talked about the impact this is going to have on so many people. Not just the student-athletes that are participating in here, but the campus itself,” Blank said.This is just such an important piece for the campus, and I think that’s what all of us who have been involved in this project are most proud of.”
The Schar Center will not only serve Elon athletics, but will function as a gathering space for large Elon events such as convocations, commencements and concerts.
“You can build a basketball facility – that’s one thing. But to build something like this that’s going to benefit the whole campus, the community and who knows beyond that has been a great experience,” Blank said. “It’s been trying at times, but I think the outcome is going to be a great facility that everyone is going to enjoy.”
“I definitely think going from an arena that holds 1,500 to 5,000 is a big attraction,” Santa Ana said. “I think it will also create a little more buzz around the team and the community.”
Helping that along the way will be the future players who call the center home, and that starts with recruiting incoming classes every year. Junior guard Dainan Swoope says that will be the biggest impact the building has on the program.
“I think it will help a lot with recruits,” he said. “Now you can see a more typical [Colonial Athletic Association] gym. That’s a gym like everybody else in the CAA plays in, so that will help us be able compete being able to take recruits from other CAA schools.”
The 160,000-square-foot building was named after Dwight and Martha Schar, whose donation of $13 million helped fund the project and expand the School of Communications facilities half a mile down the road.
The building is modeled off of the arena at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and features more than 700 parking spaces for visitors to use. The main difference in the design is the addition of the practice facilities that wasn’t incorporated into the Trojans’ floor plan.
“To me, it’s a necessity. But you’re talking to a former coach,” Blank said. “I really like the element of having two courts in here and the ability to subdivide things. I think that’s really important, and I think our athletes will benefit from this. In essence you can have three courts going at the same time and also allowed us to put permanent seats all the way to the floor.”
“Just having a consistent gym that we can get into ... somewhere where we can go get shots up 24/7, … it’s exciting because that wasn’t always something that we could do with Alumni Gym,” Swoope said.
Originally slated for 5,400 seats, the designers had trouble fitting them all into the space and had to reduce the number down to 5,100. Regardless, the players say they are thrilled to have a building with everything all in the same place.
“I just like how central everything is,” Santa Ana said. “You have the weight room in there, the training room in there, the basketball court, the practice court – It’s nice to have it all right there.”
As the Schar Center prepares for the games ahead, Blank says the atmosphere is what will be the biggest difference.
“You feel like you’re in an arena, and that’s a really neat thing for student-athletes,” he said. “We went from how do you go from a small one to a big one to a wow factor. It’s incredible.”