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Campbell Athletics: A day in Camel-lot
BUIES CREEK —“Welcome to Camelot,” read a sign next to Barker-Lane Stadium.
For a hardcore Campbell sports fans, Saturday was paradise. Unless they stepped into a rain puddle upon their arrival like I did, soaking my right foot. Camels fans had a full slate of events to attend: Football finished its first home schedule since the program folded in 1950 because of financial difficulties. Men’s soccer played for the Atlantic Sun championship. And the basketball teams entered the much anticipated A.C.G. Era — After Carter Gymnasium.
And I had the honor of covering the whole schedule. Thankfully, the rain gods took mercy on me until I reached the the sparkling $30 million John W. Pope Jr. Convocation Center. I wiped my feet upon entry to knock off the 2-inches of accumulated mud.
Occasional rain and two tornado watches probably kept some fans from making a day of the three different events. But everywhere I went, orange shirts stood out against the gray skies.
Fans stuck through to the end despite the football team continuing its struggles. Wigged soccer nuts packed the hill overlooking the pitch like they have all season. And lines formed outside the new basketball arena an hour before the women took the floor.
Some teams lost, others won. But this wasn’t any regular Saturday in Buies Creek. Campbell fans saw the future of this burgeoning Division I school.
“The weather put a damper on what otherwise has been a great day,” Campbell athletic director Stan Williamson said. “This was our chance to show off Campbell as a Division I athletic program that is doing things the right way.”
No seniors on senior day
Usually the last home game is when a football program honors its seniors.
No parents were handing players balloons because there are no seniors on Campbell’s team. The first-year program’s roster is filled with kids only a year or two removed from high school.
Their growing pains haven’t given fans much to cheer about this season. They had seen only 20 points in the previous four home games until Brandon Chandler returned the opening kick 86 yards for a touchdown and an early lead against Valparaiso.
Campbell (0-7 Pioneer Football League, 1-9 overall) hadn’t led since traveling to beat Division III Carthage 36-27 on Sept. 27. But this moment of excitement waned as the Crusaders’ running attack and the Camels’ five turnovers took their tolls.
A 47-14 loss means Campbell must wait until at least next season for its first home victory. But 2,164 fans filled the yet-to-be finished stands to show support. Campbell had the third best attendance in the Pioneer Football League, averaging 4,062 fans at its previous four home games.
“When people have your back like the student body and the people who show up each week, that means more to you than the people who show up when you win,” coach Dale Steele said. “Because I think we win – and we will win here – people will show up in larger numbers.”
Watching the weather
Low, menacing clouds were moving in when I arrived at the Eakes Athletic Complex.
The Campbell men’s soccer team didn’t seem to care, scoring two goals for what appeared to be a commanding 3-1 halftime advantage against Jacksonville. The players also couldn’t hear the weather reports the Harnett County deputies kept providing.
“We’ve got a tornado watch until about 6 p.m. tonight,” one said. “If it turns into a warning, we’re going to need everyone into that building right away.”
So while I pondered why the new convocation center should have an indoor soccer field, a boisterous crowd urged their Camels on. Many thought the school’s second straight Atlantic Sun tournament championship was within reach.
Stan Cole, the school’s associate athletic director for athletic media services, even felt confident in a halftime phone call to a friend. “There’s no way this team gives up four goals,” he said.
The exact opposite of his prediction occurred as the Dolphins battled back on the muddy field. They netted the equalizer with 15 minutes, 21 seconds remaining, and the go-ahead with 1:32 on the clock.
Jacksonville hadn’t beat the Camels in the past six years, and the 4-3 victory snapped Campbell’s 12-game winning streak.
“We just stopped playing,” coach Doug Hess said. “It is what it is. The game gives and it takes, and on this day I think Jacksonville really deserved to win.”
One shining moment
Indoors, now we’re talking. And what a comfortable home the convocation center will be for the Campbell men’s and women’s basketball programs.
Earlier this year, Cole took me on a tour of the Camels’ facilities. For kicks, he walked me into Carter Gym to show me how far the new 3,100-seat convocation center is from the “cozy” confines at the old 947-seat facility.
After seeing and smelling the old men’s basketball locker room that could serve as a prison’s solitary confinement cell, I still want to hear coach Robbie Laing’s pitch to a potential recruit two years ago. It had to be along the lines, “The new arena is coming, I promise guys.”
Laing and women’s coach Wanda Watkins both attended the Saturday’s other sporting events before leading their squads to wins. Watkin’s team handled Coker 74-50 in its debut, and the men did the same against Chowan, 79-64.
“It’s a lot of fun to drive up to a facility like we have – it’s almost like driving up to (Detroit’s) Palace of Auburn Hills in the NBA,” Laing said. “I went to only pieces of events today so I could sustain energy for tonight.
“It’s refreshing to see all the fans on campus and the number of people interested in our event tonight.”
While the weather probably kept fans away and there were empty seats around the arena, Laing was glad the future facility is finally the present. Where his basketball team and Campbell athletics go from there is now up to them.
I’m heading home to change my socks.
Campbell athletics: A day in Camel-lot
By Paul Shugar, The Fayetteville Observer (NC)