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Harrison Central unveils new digs for athletic teams

CADIZ — Justin Clifford hardly ever wears a suit when he coaches the Harrison Central High School boys’ basketball team.

But as he stood on the hardwood Saturday, the veteran hoops boss looked more like a model for a men’s catalog than a man charting Xs and Os.

“They made me wear this,” he joked.

It was a special day for Clifford. He wasn’t standing on just any old basketball floor. It was the new floor, in the new gym at the new Harrison Central school. The one that was officially opened moments before with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that included performances by the school’s cheerleaders and band and speeches by district administrators, of which Clifford is one of.

As one of two assistant principals in the senior/junior high portion of the new building, Clifford can’t put a price on how important the new building, which also includes elementary students, is to the future of the district’s youth.

“They can say that facilities and things like that don’t matter,” he said, “but when you walk in here it gets you excited. Not many kids are excited to go to school, but when you walk in here, it gets you pretty excited.”

Out the gym doors and around the corner is the office of Athletic Director Ray Hibbs.

“It’s way nicer, but about the same size,” Hibbs said of his new digs.

He was lamenating some athletic passes for a few of the hundreds of folks who paraded enthusiastically through the doors to get a look at the $65M school, which features numerous state-of-the-art athletic amenities.

The periphery of the campus is still littered with construction vehicles. But when students arrive for the first day of school next week, they’ll find a building complete with all the bells and whistles that the old school and its gym — the John W. Stephenson Center — didn’t have.

“This is an amazing opportunity for the kids of the district,” Hibbs said.

“Our facilities now are as good as anyone’s in the valley with all the upgrades we’ve done at the football stadium (Wagner Field) and, now, with these two gyms here.

“Add to that the training facility right down the hall from my office.”

To a man, and woman, Hibbs said the response from the district’s coaches has extremely overwhelming to what they’ve seen upon gazing at the school’s amenities for the first time.

“They’re all just super-excited,” he said. “They just can’t believe how nice the building really is and how nice it’s going to be for the community to attend events at this facility.”

Unlike the Stephenson Center, there’s parking aplenty on a level lot, along with spacious room inside the school to move around and enjoy concessions and mingle during games.

“Everything is way more convenient,” Hibbs pointed out, noting he hopes to lure postseason tournament contests in the future. “You go out the doors on one end, and the locker rooms are right there. You go out the doors on the other end, and the concession area is right there. You have a large cafeteria where people can enjoy their concessions. And we can actually show live feeds of games in the concession area.”

The main gym is state-of-the-art and regulation size. Gone will be the days of fans having to squeeze themselves in to make their way to their seats. The new ones are blue and surround a splashy, shiny court that’s covered with a large huskie with two large eyes at both ends near the free throw areas.

“And we added an end zone area for the ‘Kennel Krazies,'” noted Donnie Madzia, an assistant principal at the elementary school, who’ll be serving as an assistant for Clifford this winter.

Above those bleachers is a large mural painted by Scott Hagan aka “The Barn Artist.”

“The light from all the windows here lights the whole building up,” added Madzia, a school alumnus. “If you can’t come in here smiling and willing to learn and ready to play basketball, then you can’t do it anywhere else.”

Madzia’s dad, Phil, led the Pledge of Allegiance at the opening ceremony.

“I cried when we passed the levy,” Madzia said. “I cried (Saturday) during the presentation because this means so much to us.”

The locker rooms are bright and spacious, too, as is the junior high gym.

“That will allow us to not have late practices,” varsity girls’ basketball head coach Nick Yourkovich said. “Both varsity teams should be able to practice right after school.

“I would think this gets everyone a little more fired up. For me, going into year 11, a little extra boost doesn’t hurt the kids to get a little more excited. But when you get to walk into a place like this it gives you a little more energy.

“The (Stephenson Center) is home, but in here everything is top of the line. I couldn’t be more excited to get started.”

Sarah Hawthorne, the head volleyball coach, returns after taking a season off caring for her newborn child. She can’t wait to start the season Saturday in the new gym vs. Union Local.

“It’s a new atmosphere, that’s for sure,” she said. “Growing up in the district, it’s bittersweet to leave the building that I grew up in. But I’m excited for what the girls, not only on the team, but what all the students in the district, are going to be able to see and be able to experience.”

Tom Spoonour has had children graduate from the district. He’s also been a familiar face at the scorer’s table at many athletic events. He’s eager to see how the new building plays a role in the future of Harrison County youth.

“This is huge,” he said as he awaited the ribbon cutting. “We’ve waited on this forever. My kids are grown and out of school, but I’ve wanted this so bad for the kids of Harrison County. They deserve it.”

Clifford agrees. Now he can’t wait to get the basketballs out in November and trade in his suit and tie for a coach’s shirt and whistle.

“Anytime you’re in nicer facilities and stuff like that it excites people,” he said. “So, hopefully, it excites kids to want to play on it one day and, you know, get another generation excited.”

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