ST. PAUL — Even though the St. Paul High School varsity volleyball team will continue to play its home matches in the main gymnasium this fall, there is plenty of excitement among the players now that the school district has completed a new auxiliary gym adjacent to the school on the site of the former bus barn.
That's because the facility, which was completed in July and has been used somewhat sparingly before official fall practices begin next week, promises to ease the overcrowding issues that students like Logan Robinson, Presley Smith and Isabelle Wyss have been dealing with for years.
It wasn't that long ago that the trio of varsity players were in middle school and were forced to practice at 6 o'clock in the morning, especially for basketball, because the main gym was fully booked in the afternoons and evenings for high school practices or games.
"That was not very fun," Robinson said.
But because the new gym can be split into two basketball or two volleyball courts, with a dividing curtain in between if needed, the district has doubled the amount of effective court space and middle school athletes and families will no longer have to face that early morning commute.
"I've already heard of several middle school kids who can now come out because practices are after school," volleyball coach Lesli Hiller said. "There are some kids that can't get that ride in at 6 a.m. I know at the parochial school we have kids from Salem, Hubbard, all over the place, and that weren't able to participate. I think it will really help develop our middle school program for sure."
Because volleyball is the only fall sport that plays indoors, the overcrowding issues were most acute for basketball, especially on game days. With four total games to play between the boys and girls varsity and junior varsity teams, the first game was scheduled for as early as 2:30 p.m. in order to play the girls varsity contest at 5:30 and the boys varsity at 7 p.m.
Often times the junior varsity games would start late and run long, so the varsity games were pushed back even further, but the new gym will allow St. Paul to host both junior varsity games simultaneously at 4 p.m.
Smith said that was a big selling point for the community when the $5.27 million bond that funded the project, along with some locker room renovations in the main gym that were completed last year and ongoing seismic upgrades to the elementary school, was passed in May 2015.
"Before, if you got started at 3 or 3:30, the kids are always scrambling and they're not getting proper meals and missing study time and all these things," girls basketball coach Dave Matlock said. "This allows the kids to stay in school and have a little more semblance of order in their day and not play the first game until 4. It's going to take a lot of pressure off of kids. I think that's going to be a huge shot in the arm."
Matlock said that new basketball practice schedules have not yet been worked out, but expects to have a lot more flexibility this winter, including the ability to use the full court more often. He said that is essential because his teams both employ full-court pressure and face it regularly, but when the main gym is split into two courts, they aren't even close to full length and can't be used to practice those aspects of the game.
It's a similar story in volleyball because in order to put up two nets in the main gym, they must share a center post, which leaves no separation between the two courts. Because there are bleachers on both sides of the main gym, there also isn't adequate room to serve in the two-court format.
The new gym is about the same size as the main one, but because it has just one set of bleachers that are just three rows deep, it can better accommodate two side-by-side courts with more room on the ends for serving and eight feet of space (and the option of the dividing curtain) in between them. That will allow the varsity team to use the single-court set-up for practice in the main gym, while the junior varsity and middle school teams split the auxiliary gym.
"We'll have three courts going, all right after school," Hiller said. "We'll definitely have to get some more volleyballs now."
The auxiliary gym greatly expands the amount of storage space for sports equipment and also features restrooms, a music room and two team rooms. The extra team rooms were needed because for games visitors use the girls locker room, which has pushed halftime and post-game meetings into the weight room.
"Even if they have to walk back and forth between the buildings, it's better to have a room you can talk in than a weight room," Hiller said. "I will definitely be putting them to use."
In addition to all the logistical problems the new facility solves, there is also excitement about the quality of the new gym itself.
"It's just been a long time coming," Matlock said. "I'm glad, finally, we got this gym accomplished. It's a beautiful floor and beautiful atmosphere."
Construction of the facility was delayed twice since the bond was initially passed. The original completion date was set for November 2016, but by the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year issues with permitting and the fire suppression system had pushed the target back to February 2017. The current estimate for the cost of the auxiliary gym, including equipment and change orders, is $2.3 million, but final figures are not yet available.
While the delays were unfortunate, Smith said the end result is exactly what the district needed.
"It's an overall feeling of pride that the community has in our school that is probably the biggest thing," athletic director Tony Smith said. "I think the same thing with the community itself in general. St. Paul is very proud, not just of its athletics, but its schools in general. It's really that true small-town community support that's very positive. I think everyone is proud of that."