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Stetson, DeLand await football's return
Rick Hall likes what he sees. So much so that when the DeLand Parks and Recreation director views prominent changes to the city’s football stadium — which soon will host Stetson’s first football game since 1956 — he can almost hear a crowd cheering in the distance.
“The press box is taking shape. You can recognize it,” said Hall, who has made refurbishing Spec Martin Memorial Stadium his top priority for more than two years.
“It really makes the stadium stand out. When it’s all completed, people are going to be impressed. It’s going to be a great place for people to cheer on the home team.”
Shouts of “Go Hatters!” will become a reality in 11 weeks. At 7 p.m. on Aug. 31, Warner University visits Stetson for the Hatters’ first football game in 57 years.
Downtown DeLand merchants are already cheering.
“I think it’s going to be great for local businesses,” said Scott Groth, owner of Bellini’s Italian Restaurant & Delicatessen on East Rich Avenue. “People are constantly talking about Stetson football. There’s a lot of chatter about it. All of downtown should benefit.”
Stetson’s football team will share the facility with the DeLand High Bulldogs, which also will have a logo on the state-of-the-art, $450,000 video scoreboard that will soon be erected. Other organizations, such as Pop Warner and PAL youth football, also will use the stadium, Hall said.
The $3.1 million in new construction and refurbishment of the city-owned stadium features a new three-tier, 7,800-square-foot press box, new and updated locker rooms, new east and west gates and paved parking on the west side of the stadium, Hall said.
“It’s going to be a mad rush at the end, probably, but when it’s done, people are going to be impressed,” said Hall, a former baseball player and pitching coach for the Hatters.
Stetson’s return to the gridiron has been a topic of conversation around town since university President Wendy B. Libby and Athletic Director Jeff Altier decided it was the right time to bring back Hatter football. That decision was announced March 14, 2011, moments after the DeLand City Commission committed to refurbishing the stadium.
Stetson coach Roger Hughes continues not only to build a football team, but encourage fans, boosters, Stetson students and the community to get behind the Hatters.
“If we want to build the program to the level where we all want it to be, we need everyone to contribute,” said Hughes, a former head coach at Princeton University. “And the No. 1 thing people can do now is buy tickets. But we need people to do everything, whether it’s giving money to the program or passing along the name of a player they think can help us. It takes a village, or in this case, a community’s support.”
Hughes said he expects to have 120 Hatters on campus for the start of preseason workouts on Aug. 2. About 75 of them took part in last year’s fall practice season in which the Hatters drew crowds for intrasquad scrimmages and an estimated 2,210 attended a Green-White game on Homecoming.
Bigger crowds are anticipated to fill Spec Martin’s estimated 6,000 seats. The university has taken 2,606 season ticket reservations for 2013, leaving 3,170 available, according to Stetson director of ticket operations Joan Hazel. Only 61 seats remain in the John B. Club premium seating area and another 145 are available in the Hatter Booster section.
Of course, the three luxury boxes inside the new press box will be the most coveted, with 24 theater-style chairs divided among three rooms with the best views in the house.
Downtown DeLand businesses expect to see a significant bump on game weekends as fans fill restaurants, bars and shops along and just off Woodland Boulevard. Alumni will return to town, and many of them will visit places that were popular when they were Stetson students.
“I think it will be like Homecoming six times a year,” said Bellini’s owner Groth.
At least one local businessman is hoping to capitalize on the return of Stetson football, as well. Ormond Beach businessman Chris Calabucci, who owns the downtown DeLand sports apparel shop Sportsanity, purchased the Moose Lodge property at 614 S. Alabama Ave., which is diagonally across the street from Spec Martin, in hopes of turning it into a tailgating hub, complete with a bar and banquet room.
The university has made a significant financial investment in starting its football program, even though it is a non-scholarship program, and the benefits are already being realized in increased student enrollment and enhanced facilities for all Stetson student-athletes, Altier said.
Stetson opened its $6.7-million on-campus athletic training center, complete with two practice football fields, a competition soccer/lacrosse field and practice fields for soccer and lacrosse, last August. The training center includes a weightlifting and cardio conditioning area that is supervised by Stetson’s first full-time strength and conditioning coach.
“So far on football, we’ve either met or exceeded our expectations,” Altier said.
The athletic director said having a football program that competes in NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA, also has enhanced the view businesses and boosters have of Stetson. The Hatters belong to the Atlantic Sun Conference in most sports, but for football will play in the Pioneer Football League. “We’re starting to get into doors that we couldn’t get in before, and I believe that’s only going to increase as we move forward,” Altier said.
Stetson also is getting inside doors of prospective football players, and some of them are deciding to be Hatters. Hughes said Stetson had a goal to recruit nationally, and that has been met: A total of 21 states are represented on Stetson’s roster. Additionally, local high school football players are considering Stetson as well.
“If Stetson didn’t have football, I probably would have gone out of state to a Division II school or maybe (Florida Atlantic),” said Spruce Creek product Jonathan Strahl, a former quarterback who was converted to tight end. “Obviously, you get a great education at Stetson, especially for what I’m studying (business and pre-law), and now you can play Division I football. I’d say the majority of us on the team are here because of the great academics and the opportunity to be part of something new – to start a (football) tradition.”
That tradition begins in earnest in a few weeks – Aug. 2 for players and coaches, and Aug. 31 for the fans.
Timeline for Stetson football
Aug. 2 – Players report for preseason camp
Aug. 16 – Deadline for all construction, grounds work and paved parking to be completed
Aug. 31 – First game vs. Warner University; kickoff set for 7 p.m. at Spec Martin Memorial Stadium, DeLand
Sept. 7 – First away game at Florida Tech, 7 p.m.
Sept. 28 – First Pioneer Football League game at home vs. San Diego, 1 p.m.
By Sean Kernan, Daytona Beach News-Journal