While still a huge undertaking, the second year of playing host to the NCAA Division II men’s and women’s soccer national championships at Blanchard Woods Park has been less dramatic for Peach Belt Conference officials and their Columbia County partners.
After an 18-month run-up to the 2012 event, the blueprint for this year’s championship had been drawn up, just requiring minor adjustments along the way.
“We know what is expected of us and what needs to be done, it made the whole process a lot easier,” said Ken Gerlinger, the Peach Belt Conference’s assistant commissioner for communications. “We knew what had to be done and we’re not scrambling around like we were last year.”
What could have been a potential problem turned out to be a good thing when the scoreboard on the main field blew down during an October storm.
“We looked at it as an opportunity to upgrade our scoreboard,” said John Luton, Columbia County Recreation manager.
With a sponsorship from Coca-Cola, the county was able to erect an updated digital scoreboard with improved bells and whistles and it was placed in a better location.
Gerlinger called the field level, fast and firm, but rain on Tuesday and Wednesday caused changes to the schedule.
“We were going to paint it, put lines on it and the teams were supposed to be able to walk around on it today (Wednesday), now that’s not going to happen,” said Gerlinger, who added that he had been getting compliments on the field being in the best shape ever. “We have to wait to see if it drys out today and paint it tonight.”
Luton gave a nod to the county employees responsible for the field’s upkeep.
“The maintenance staff has done a great job of getting the field ready.” Luton said. “They’ve put a lot of time in on it and they take a lot of pride in this event.”
While waiting for Thursday’s semifinals to begin, the eight teams took time out Wednesday to visit Columbia County schools and spent time with students.
The Carson-Newman University Eagles men’s team spent an hour with students and staff at Martinez Elementary School. Players read to students, sang and danced with them and fielded a myriad of questions in the process.
Senior midfielder Bryce Berry was smiling as he answered questions in Todd Shafer’s fifth-grade class and enjoyed the overall experience.
“We get so much as athletes, so it’s nice to give back as much as you can,” said Berry. “Just getting to take an hour out of our day to come down here has been awesome.”
As well as getting the players into the schools, tournament organizers were hoping to bring fans out to the game. Students that players interacted with were given wristbands that gave them and one parent free admittance to all the tournament games.
“We’ve gotten great coverage and that kind of stuff, but what we haven’t gotten is locals to come out to watch,” Gerlinger said. “I understand it’s a tough sell. They’re teams you’ve never heard of, we’re playing on a weekday in the afternoon, I understand that, but we’re trying to get more local interest in the championship.”
Gerlinger added that they worked with about a dozen local businesses, selling them blocks of tickets, and was pleased with those reults.
After the Wednesday night banquet, the teams would concentrate on playing Thursday. That’s when the staff – totaling close to 50 – including volunteers from Fort Gordon and the Augusta Sports Council, local medical and law enforcement personnel among others, got to work. There were a number of jobs to fill, from checking badges to running the press center to selling merchandise in concession stands. While the goal was to put on a championship event, it was also a chance to enhance the county’s status.
“Anytime you host a prestigious organization like the NCAA, it’s a good opportunity for exposure for Columbia County and Blanchard Woods Park especially,” Luton said.
“It’s not a huge event, numbers-wise, it’s only bringing in eight teams, but the big name of the NCAA and hosting this event two years in a row at Blanchard Woods Park will hopefully help our reputation in hosting large events.”