Columbia County scores with big time soccer tournament
After years of planning and a significant investment in funds, Columbia County is getting ready to host the NCAA Division II men’s and women’s soccer finals at Blanchard Woods Park.
“Basically, we were awarded the event over larger cities in Florida and California,” says Community and Leisure Services Director Barry Smith. “That’s a pretty large accomplishment for this region.”
Four men’s and four women’s teams will arrive in town on Tuesday, November 27, spending the rest of the week practicing, playing and, in the off hours, exploring Columbia County and greater Augusta.
The county also expects them to spend money, too. Hopefully, a lot of money.
“There’s a lot of economic impact involved here,” Smith says. “With hotel night stays and sales tax and gas and family and friends eating in restaurants and the hotel tax, we’re excited about it.”
Estimates made when the deal was signed back in June 2010 put the economic impact at $500,000.
That money hasn’t come without a cost, however.
Blanchard Woods Park, which opened in September 2007, had just about everything it needed to have a big time tournament — four practice fields, lights and a stadium field with bleachers that seat 700 — but it didn’t have locker rooms.
No locker rooms, no big time tournaments.
In an effort to help the park snag Peach Belt events, Peach Belt Commissioner David Brunk had been trying to convince the county to build the locker rooms since the park opened.
Things changed in March 2010 when the chair of the NCAA Division II men’s soccer committee at the time also happened to be the head coach at Lander, a Peach Belt school. The Lander coach raved about the facility, and later Brunk was approached by the men’s and women’s soccer committees about the possibility of Blanchard Woods hosting the championships.
Suddenly, the need for the locker rooms was critical, and though initial indications were positive, there were no guarantees that spending the money — estimated then to be between $300,000-$400,000 — would snag the tournament.
“They don’t let us know [who else is in the running], but apparently they had already received some bids prior to calling us, and I thought that it was a good sign that maybe they weren’t real enthralled with who they had received from,” Brunk told commissioners at the time. “In talking with them, I think they were just really impressed with the facility and that, reading between the lines, if they had their druthers, they would rather come here.”
Ultimately the county committed to building the locker rooms, and in July 2010 Columbia County beat out San Diego and Pensacola for the right to host the men’s and women’s championships for 2012 and 2013.
Home of the Peach Belt soccer championships for the last five years, organizers used the most recent conference finals, played a couple of weeks ago, as a trial run. Outside of some positioning issues involving a tent, things went off relatively well.
Even the portable press box required by the NCAA for live streaming of the finals seemed up for the job.
“And the improvements the county made on the stadium field were outstanding,” Brunk said. “Everyone loved the surface, so I think we’ll be set and ready to go.”
Though originally slated to be broadcast by the CBS College Sports Network, the championships will instead stream live on the NCAA website, which prompted the county to speed up the installation of its new broadband fiber in that area.
“They wanted wifi capabilities at the stadium field, so we had to get those access points installed and broadband installed for streaming live,” Smith said. “And we had to accommodate them with that rental press box I found out of Atlanta.”
Both Brunk and Smith have been participating in increasingly frequent conference calls with NCAA officials about the condition of the field and the status of the event.
“We’ve been in constant contact since probably last January or February,” Brunk said. “We’ve had at least monthly calls. Then, starting in the summer, we started having biweekly calls. This week, there will be a big call with the coaches and athletic directors of the teams.”
The fight to make the championships wasn’t decided until Sunday, November 18.
Playing for the men’s championship will be Mercyhurst out of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, Lynn University, Saginaw Valley State out of Michigan and Simon Fraser University, a school out of Vancouver, British Columbia that plays in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference and is the first Canadian school to play in an NCAA finals.
On the women’s side, it’s West Florida, the College of St. Rose, Grand Valley State and the University of California-San Diego.
While the NCAA has pretty much taken over the marketing of the event, Brunk says he’s about to ramp up the local awareness campaign.
“We didn’t want to confuse people with the Peach Belt Championship and the NCAA, but now that we know the teams, we’re going to hit it pretty good. Hopefully, both Chambers are going to get email blasts out, and the Augusta Sports Council is helping, too.
In spite of the fact that none of the schools are local — the Peach Belt Conference nearly had a team in both the men’s and women’s finals, but each fell tantalizingly short — Brunk said local support is still important.
“We’ve got to get the support or the NCAA will say whoops — thanks, but nobody came out to watch, and I sure don’t want that to happen,” Brunk said. “We’ve put too much time and effort into all of this.”
Though Columbia County has hosted a good number of major sporting events, including several top tier bass tournaments, the Dixie World Series and portions of the Georgia Games, this is the largest national sporting event it’s ever attempted to present.
“I would consider it a feather in Columbia County’s cap,” Smith said. “It gives a nod of approval that our facilities are built to accommodate a national event like this.”
Smith said he hopes to increase that ability to host such events by investing even more into the park when the next round of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) money is available.
“I do plan to submit Blanchard Woods Phase Two Expansion to build five to seven more soccer fields at that facility,” he said. “And once we do that, you can get big state games, which are a big draw to economic impact.
Blanchard Woods Park has a total of 150 acres, only 40 of which are currently developed. That leaves plenty of room to develop 40 more.
Such an expansion would probably cost between $4-$5 million.
In addition to the Blanchard Woods expansion, the county will eventually add five soccer fields to its emerging presence adjacent to Lakeside High School as well as a tennis complex somewhere else in the county.
“Multi use is good, but I think we want to stick with just soccer and lacrosse at Blanchard Woods,” Smith said.
Smith’s interest in lacrosse is so serious that he’s added it to his recreational offerings.
“Once we can expand the fields, we can attract national lacrosse tournaments,” Smith said. “I’ve been networking with U.S. Lacrosse and they are interested in Blanchard Woods, but they say that we have to have a few more fields to have national lacrosse tournaments there. It’s something that I’m working to get, though. It’s a perfect fit for a soccer field.”
With any championship, the NCAA basically has a conference or a sports council or a member institution serving as the host of the event. Because Peach Belt conference member ASU doesn’t have a soccer team, the Peach Belt conference itself, which is based in Columbia County, is partnering with the county to host. Though Brunk has been involved in several championship events in the past, this is the first time he and the Peach Belt have been this kind of primary host.
One of the surprises has been the amount of signage the NCAA is sending in.
“We have two full POD storage units out at Blanchard Woods and there’s supposed to be a semi truck coming today to deliver more stuff,” Brunk said. “The place will really look sharp when we get everything up.”
That big time feel is also being translated into how the teams themselves are being treated. Tuesday evening, the night they all arrive, they’ll participate in a private evening at Adventure Crossing. Wednesday night, there will be a banquet at Savannah Rapids Pavilion and each coach is being given movie tickets to help relax their team during the off hours.
“And Friday, we have a community engagement activity,” Brunk said. “Some members from each of the teams are going to work at a food bank in the area.”
As for what would make the tournament a success, Brunk was pretty straightforward.
“To me, I guess it would be the support of the community for the event — that’s paramount — but then I also want the participants of every one of the teams to say this was really neat and that they had a good experience,” he said. “Because that’s what it’s really all about — the experience for the student athletes. I want them to go back to San Diego or back up to Vancouver and say, ‘Man, we went down to the Augusta, Georgia area and it was really great.”
NCAA Division II Men’s and Women’s Soccer Championships
Blanchard Woods Park
Thursday, November 29 (semifinals)
Saturday, December 1 (finals)
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