Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Old, Unique, and Loud: Reflections on Shelton Gym

I have written versions of this article dozens of times in my head.  Depending upon what emotion was surging through my brain at the time, the words in this ever edited post have ebbed and flowed in my mind throughout the years.  Shelton Gym, the inanimate object that it is, has elicited many feelings in me throughout the years running from disdain to elation.  However, as I reflect on volleyball in Shelton, three things bubble to the surface: that place is old, it is unique and man, is it loud.

Shelton Gym was the home of Lumberjack and Ladyjack basketball from 1951-1974.  There was no volleyball at SFA during that period and while I’m not old enough to have ever seen it in its basketball only state, I have heard plenty of stories.  Colleagues and townspeople have communicated the tales of lines wrapping all the way around the building multiple times while fans waited to buy tickets and enter.  On the weekend nights when it hosted a rivalry game, it was the feature place in town, the center of the campus and packed with students and members of the community thigh to thigh on the bleachers.  Believe it or not, there used to be windows at the top and on the sides of Shelton Gym and it hasn’t always just had seating above the floor.  Old photographs show the evidence of stands right off the side of the basketball court and then stair stepping all the way up to narrow rectangular windows where the sticker banners for volleyball are affixed now.

To hear the stories from the 1960’s and 1970’s during the early 2000’s would put you in disbelief.  That old place?  Once the sports mecca of East Texas?  Hardly, I thought.  I’d listen to the old-timers talk about missing most of the first half still standing in line or folks camping out hours before game time just to get a good seat.  I’d always leave the conversation thinking their memories were stronger than reality.  I had walked through Shelton Gym after arriving on campus in 1997.  I was a brash, young assistant professor focused almost entirely on my research and earning a good teaching reputation.  I could then and can now peer down on the top of Shelton from my academic office.  I’d look at it and just see a big rectangular piece of concrete fit for yoga classes and old ladies doing arm circles at ‘Senior Sneakers’ days.  You could barely see from one side of the gym to the other.  Dark, dingy, and if you got to the right corners and crevices, you’d probably be greeted with a rodent or two snacking on thirty year old popcorn dropped by some co-ed watching the ‘Jacks take on Sul Ross.  To me, at that time, Shelton Gym had no allure at all.

SFA Volleyball had called musty Shelton home from the inception of the program until 1999.  During 1999, the team played a few games in Johnson Coliseum.  I had a toddler son at the time and I attended a few of those matches with him to give my wife a break from the evening routine.  I had a few players in my classes during the 1999 season and they had invited me.  Those few matches at the end of the millennium spurred me on to become a regular attendee.  The club advertised it was moving “full-time” to Johnson Coliseum for the 2000 season and I wondered why they had not been playing there for years.  No matter, I was enjoying watching volleyball and sitting among the parents and fans with my son.  It was fun.  I caught the fever of “SFA Volleyball Family”, but I knew very little about the game at that time.  You know the type:  The person who knows just enough about a sport to be an armchair quarterback but otherwise their limited knowledge is dangerous.  That was me in spades.

For a good five or six years, I attended every home match.  I got to know Debbie Humphreys, her husband Richard and her two kids.  The oldest, Regan, was close to the same age as my son Jacob.  Little did I know that roughly a dozen years later they would graduate in the same class at Central Heights High School with Regan a standout setter and my Jacob the first baseman on the state championship baseball team.  I’d go to matches, talk with players, sit among parents, yell at referees about calls I really did not understand and have a blast. Like now, I’d eat too much popcorn.  I think everyone knows I love popcorn.

Then, after SFA brought back it’s baseball program and I got the job as their public address announcer at Jaycees Field, an opportunity to announce for volleyball emerged. I began working for SFA Volleyball in 2006. I guess I picked a good year as that is one of the dates that lives in Ladyjack history.  That year, SFA won its first, and to date only, NCAA Tournament game against Alabama.  At the end of the regular season, we had senior night in the Coliseum and Coach Humphreys invited me to the reception.  At one point in her address to the attendees she acknowledged my energy on the microphone and felt like some stability had been reached in the public address role.  In previous years, random students would do it with little emotion and often stumble over names and speak too softly.  While surely not perfect, I was confident, prepared, and energetic.  The players, coaches and fans seemed to enjoy the aggressive approach and many of them already knew me from past years’ attendance.  I had broken in and was determined to continue to do a respectable job.

This blog came along in 2009.  The first several years were an adventure.  This was a period was I was really growing in the game. But, at times I would get overconfident and write something completely stupid.  Debbie and I joke about that phase now, but I guess we all still do that from time to time.  There is always plenty to learn and most of us make the mistake of thinking we know more than what we do.  That sort of thing is especially true in sports where everyone has to always be an expert.

During the 2010 season a rumor began to circulate.  This was the last year for volleyball in the Coliseum and we were moving BACK to Shelton Gym in 2011.  Everyone was talking about it so positively.  Coaches, athletic staff, players – they all smiled when they said it.  Now, I have to admit that my first response was extreme disappointment.  I became the Shelton Gym contrarian.  I had enjoyed five seasons working with a strong sound system in this big arena where my voice would bounce off the 7000 plus seats forcefully.  The acoustics were good, the music and sounds clear and discernable.  Now, I was going to call games in that rat hole, I thought?  What are they thinking?  Why do they want to play THERE?  I thought about it far too selfishly, and….


I could not see what was around the bend.  I did not understand what was about to happen and how it was going to transform the fan experience on game day.  I was blinded by my own role and could not see the greater picture.  I’ve learned from that selfishness.  Things in athletics are far more enjoyable – even in the tough times, if you’ll take a wider view of “team” – a more comprehensive look at the greater good.  I wasn’t mature enough in the game to think that way in 2010, but yet I already was entrusted with a decent amount of responsibility and surprisingly, people were reading what I wrote.  I was getting to know a lot of people in the Southland Conference:  coaches, other teams’ players, officials, league office staff.  My preparedness and energy were outpacing my volleyball IQ, but by now, I was more than broken in.  I was entrenched and I just could not see moving to Shelton as the thing to do.

The 2010 season had been a downer.  The club went 12-19.  Only a five set win against Lamar on the final day of the Southland Conference regular season was able to salvage a positive after the team came into that game riding a six match losing streak.  We seemed so far from 2006.  I had little anticipation for the 2011 Shelton Gym startup after a poor season as we tried to rebuild and relocate all at the same time.

Despite my melancholy attitude, the 2011 season started out strong on the court.   A five set win at Georgia Southern was followed by three wins at a tournament in Statesboro, GA.  A 4-0 start and folks were encouraged.  The next four matches were split 2-2 as the team travelled to Monroe, LA and Martin, TN.   A loss in Denton to North Texas put us at 6-3 to start the year.  Then came September 9, 2011.  A 6:00 PM match at a gym-opening tournament against Texas A&M.  The gym filled.  The gym filled completely.  People were sitting along the rails dangling their feet over in a complete circle above the playing surface.  Fans were standing on the top rows and tucked away in the corners.  There was no room for rats.  The air was crisp and the dingy smell replaced by concessions and the drab had been subbed out for electricity. It seemed as though EVERYONE was there despite the gym maxing out at near 600 people. The official attendance that night in the box score was 533, but I bet that was an undercount.  Two referees that have become friends – David Goss and Ron Stahl - officiated the match.  One of the best sports information directors I have ever worked with and fellow baseball nerd Ben Rikard was the scorer stationed just down the media table from me. 

At the half, the Aggies led 2-0 and it appeared opening night would come and go without SFA winning a set.  But, in Set 3 all my doubts, negativity and disdain for Shelton Gym went away in a hurry.  SFA played well in the first portion of the set and nearing its halfway point the ‘Jacks led 11-10.  Then, a kill by Katzy Randall assisted by Paige Holland, an ace by Randall and two kills by Leslie Jackson were the bookends to a monster block by Sabrina Burns and Jill Ivy.  “Raise the Roof” had become a common sports saying by this time, but during all of that excitement I literally thought the building might crumble.  Johnson Coliseum had never sounded the same way as what I was hearing.  The fierce echo, the closeness of the voices, the sound went THROUGH you and it felt as though the crowd was devouring the court like some starved lion out on the Serengeti plains.  It was insane.  It was so loud and so instantly addicting.  SFA led 16-11 and down the stretch, Randall and Ivy took over with the former dropping in a set-winning third ace of the match and the later thundering down two kills in the sets’ decisive moments.  SFA won the set 25-18.

It was one of those moments where you just catch yourself. You just stop – frozen in time.  I remember just looking around in a full 360 degree circle to take it all in.  This is what others had visioned that I had not.  This is what they were talking about and now I understood.  Shelton Gym became ‘Home of the Ladyjacks’ for me after that set.

Now, the aftermath was substantial.  Yes, we lost the match 1-3 and the sound system in Shelton proved to be various shades of pathetic or incoherent depending on which hue you would like to choose.  That 2011 season was a lost one for me on public address.  The old elementary school style speakers hanging in the rafters were meant for bell tones signaling class changes not people announcing sporting events.  Ninety percent of what was said was inaudible.  The echo in the gym with all the yelling fans, squeaking shoes and voices just overpowered the sound system.  I had gone from state of the art to the state of confusion.  Fans would tell me they could not hear me.  We turned knobs, we reset frequencies, we changed cables and microphones.  We tried every configuration of equipment we could, but public address in Shelton Gym just was not meant to be. 

In 2012, the university bought a new set of six speakers and a new sound system for Shelton Gym.  Ten years later, the same equipment is still in place.  All of it produced only marginal improvements.  I was there the day the speakers were installed.  The company that put them in let me do the first ever “mic check” on the system.  It sounded great – until the matches started and the people showed up.  To date, the public address in Shelton Gym is barely passable with words often inaudible due to the placement of the speakers and the unbelievably bad acoustics.

Well, bad acoustics for public speaking, but in terms of intimidation of opponents, the old concrete edifice has proven to be simply perfect.  During the first several years after the return to Shelton Gym you started to hear it when you were out on the road:  “Ya’ll’s gym is loud”, “Shelton isn’t one of my favorite stops on the Southland circuit”, “We can barely hear ourselves talk on the court”.  Over and over and over opposing coaches, players and fans would remark about the gym’s unique configuration, seating, and volume.  I had families tell me that they would have to leave matches because the decibel level would hurt their children’s ears.

From 2012-2015, I continued to just do public address the best that I could.  In 2016, we began broadcasting on ESPN and so my regular PA duties got passed along.  That was a blessing.  I had learned so much more by that time and had forged so many relationships.  The penance of calling PA on a wonky sound system in a brick box of a gym was soothed by new opportunities to call matches on radio and TV.

But ever since that match against Texas A&M my take on Shelton was reversed. Yes, it’s old.  It’s poorly identified with basically no signage.  The playing surface has been redone twice since 2011.  The wooden benches are moderately uncomfortable.  Until this season, it didn’t have power on one entire wall.  The lobby is oddly cluttered with concession booths, cheerleading trophy cases and depressingly small graduate student offices with tile probably laid back in the basketball eras aforementioned.  The whole geometry of the building is just unsettling to this mathematically driven person.  The visiting locker rooms are not right off the court.  I swear that one day one of the light stands in the ceiling is going to fall to the court when an errant dig pounds off the bottom of it.  Let’s face it, on the surface, Shelton Gym is……old.

But it is marvelous.  It is unique.  It is intimate and for over a decade now, it has been home.

Oh, and it is loud.  Very LOUD.

Gloriously LOUD.