Renovation turns Wilmington University soccer field into asset
Not long ago when soccer recruits came to Wilmington University (Delaware) on their official visits, they never even caught a glimpse the playing field.
It was no accident.Playing their home games at an off-campus club, the Wildcats never had a field to call their own. As a result, Nick Papanicolas, who has been the men’s soccer coach since 2004, skipped on the opportunity to flaunt the facility in hopes of enticing young prospects to commit. After all, what good would it do?
But since the university has finished its new sports complex complete with an artificial turf soccer/lacrosse field, basketball arena, locker rooms and athletic offices Papanicolas makes it the last stop during recruiting visits.
Think of it as the grand finale. A way to send young student-athletes home with a lasting impression that encourages them to come back.
“We were just excited to play on it, and we’ve never had a home field before so it’s great to see the big ‘W’ in the middle,” Papanicolas said. “It’s been a great recruiting tool, and after the visit we walk them out on the field and have them take a look at it.”
Wilmington University has experienced rapid growth over the last decade, creating a need for more programs and improved facilities. In 2004, the university made the jump from NAIA to NCAA Division II. When plans for the new complex were announced in 2011, then Director of Athletics Frank Aiello said the number of student-athletes at the school had doubled during his eight years with the program.
The now 2-year-old sports complex was a necessary upgrade. The university continues to make aesthetic improvements, including windscreens and graphics from BigSigns.com that adorn the eight-foot fence surrounding the field. Papanicolas said the university previously worked with BigSigns.com to make similar improvements to its off-campus field, adding a personal touch to make players feel a little more at home.
Papanicolas said the university’s strong relationship with BigSigns.com assured him the field would get exactly the look it was hoping for.
“They dressed up our off-campus field with screens, so when we moved here we wanted to continue that relationship and work with them,” he said.
Because various athletic programs played their games at a separate field, construction on the new sports complex didn’t displace teams or interrupt seasons like it would at most schools. In fact, Papanicolas describes the entire project as one that had more ups than downs, and the anticipation in having their own facility was enough to sustain a positive vibe around campus.
And it’s not too difficult to gauge the impact this could have on the future of the athletic department. The lacrosse program is less than 10 years old, so a plush new field could do wonders for young team on the rise.
Project leaders had to install a field that met the needs of both the soccer and lacrosse programs. Papanicolas said he wanted the maximum size allowed by the NCAA, and what the university got was field that measured 120-by-75 yards. The sideline benches are sheltered, keeping players cool in the heat and warm during unseasonably chilly days. Papanicolas said it’s everything the programs need.
“The university does a good job of laying everything out,” said Papanicolas, describing how the basketball/volleyball arena and locker rooms are in the vicinity of the playing field. “We’re a commuter school and have campuses all across the state, so we’re used to getting things done and being on time.”
Student-athletes fell in love with the new complex, and Papanicolas said the first three recruits he brought to see the field committed the same day. For him, the most rewarding aspect of the field was the reaction from alumni.
“We have a vast alumni and a group of guys that have been loyal to the program, and for them to play an alumni game on it last spring was a tremendous honor for them,” Papanicolas said.
It’s not just the handful of programs playing on the artificial surface that benefit. The basketball teams and others use the outdoor surface for strength and conditioning exercises while the lacrosse and soccer teams practice in the arena when it’s raining. With Wilmington’s athletic program growing so quickly, using all available space is a necessity.
Papanicolas said that’s exactly what athletic directors should consider when undergoing a project of their own. Input from the coaches directly affected is important, but make sure to consider how other sports indoors or outdoors can make use of all facilities and fields.
“Understand that every coach sees the facility from their sport’s vantage point,” he said. “Be aware and understand that everyone has a different opinion, and that’s OK as long as you’re on the same page and everything goes smoothly.”