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Finally, with new arena, UAA athletics enjoys roomier, modern digs

Doyle Woody
Visitors leave the new Alaska Airlines Center as work continues on the facility on Tuesday, August 12, 2014, at UAA. Coaches and administrators have been moving into offices there, and the volleyball team held the first-ever practice in the building Tuesday morning.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
Volleyball players hold the first-ever official UAA team practice in the new Alaska Airlines Center on Tuesday, August 12, 2014.
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News
The new Alaska Airlines Center on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus will be used for concerts, graduations as well as sporting events beginning this Fall. Tuesday, August 5, 2014.
Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News
General manager Chris Orheim of Global Spectrum said the company that will operate the new Alaska Airlines Center on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus that will be used for concerts and graduations as well as sporting events.
Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News
The UAA volleyball team holds the first-ever practice in the new Alaska Airlines Center as work continues in the background on Tuesday morning, August 12, 2014, at UAA. "It's a wonderful facility!," said head coach Chris Green afterwards. "We're happy to make the move."
Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News

In UAA’s old, cramped and grandiosely named Wells Fargo Sports Complex, where the school’s athletes, coaches and staff gamely tried to do more with less for decades, a rush hour of sorts regularly developed downstairs by the training room.

At 293 square feet, the training room was probably smaller than some walk-in closets in Hillside homes. Get two athletic trainers and five athletes gathered in that room and it was close quarters that felt like a broom closet.

The training room was located next to an entrance to the gym, so athletes coming and going -- whether to the training room or the gym -- naturally congregated in the hallway outside the training room. If a trainer needed to leave the training room to get to her desk, located in a 194-square foot office across the hallway from the training room, the trainer practically had to negotiate traffic to do so.

Chris Volk, UAA’s head trainer, called the hallway a “loitering area.’’

Everyone made it work, sure, but the situation was far from ideal.

Finally, though, space is no longer a lament for UAA athletics.

With the opening of the new $110 million Alaska Airlines Center on campus -- the official grand opening is next month -- the folks in the athletic department no longer have to fear claustrophobia.

The only phobia they might have to address is agoraphobia, the fear of wide-open spaces. In comparison to the old facility on campus, the new joint is enormous. And it’s been a long time coming after decades of surviving in a facility that was initially intended for intramural sports.

Volk and her assistants, Kevin Lechtenberg and Rachel Butler, now work in a training room that is actually several rooms and takes up more than 2,200 square feet.

“We’re all kind of in shock,’’ Volk said with a laugh.

And that’s after she and Lechtenberg helped design their new digs.

There’s a lot of that giddiness going around at UAA these days.

The training staff’s new environment features a hydrotherapy pool with an underwater treadmill -- Volk said All-America runner Micah Chelimo, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the spring, on Monday used the treadmill for his first run since his injury. The pool-treadmill also comes with a digital recording system that allows athletes, coaches and trainers to monitor an athlete’s gait.

There are three whirlpool tubs that can be used for cold baths or heat treatment. There are areas specifically for taping athletes, for treating them and for helping them with rehabilitation exercises.

There is room to work, and breathe.

“We’ve taken a quantum leap,’’ said athletic director Keith Hackett.

Probably no one can appreciate the upgrades more than Paul Stoklos, the only head coach in the 30-season history of Seawolves gymnastics. The gymnastics program is moving into a 9,000 square-foot space replete with state-of-the-art design and apparatus.

That’s an upgrade from, well, nothing. Gymnastics never had a home on campus. The team practiced at the Anchorage Gymnastics Association in South Anchorage, spending 30 to 60 minutes a day in transit between that facility and campus. The folks at AGA were excellent to work with, Stoklos said, but there’s nothing like finally having a dedicated facility, where athletes are not confined to specific time blocks for training.

“It’s almost like a dream,’’ Stoklos said.

Stoklos said senior-to-be Morgan Cook, the team’s captain, probably averaged 12 hours of training a week last season. With the new facility, Stoklos, Cook and other athletes can get closer to the NCAA maximum of 20 hours per week.

So, yeah, Stoklos adores his new toy, which he and associate athletic director Kevin Silver spent countless hours planning.

“For two years, I carried the drawings for the gym on every trip, and I’d ask other coaches, ‘Say, what do you think? What I am forgetting? What would be better?’ '' Stoklos said.

At the Wells Fargo facility, the volleyball team and the men’s and women’s basketball teams shared a single basketball court. The Alaska Airlines Center features two full courts, one in the main arena and one in an auxiliary gym.

Volleyball coach Chris Green said his team probably averaged 16 to 17 hours of training per week last season but can now hit the maximum 20 hours if he chooses.

Like his colleagues, he marvels at the new building.

“As coaches, we realize there’s more to wins than a venue,’’ Green said. “But, yeah, it’s amazing, a great venue for us.

“You’re going to be able to bring in recruits and wow them. It’s a great sell.’’

Green said one of his players was so overcome when she walked into the main arena recently that she cried.

Everything is roomier at the Alaska Airlines Center, from the staff offices to the weight room, from the abundant locker rooms to the gym that will seat about 5,000 and be home to the Great Alaska Shootout basketball tournament. With the fish-bowl design of the steep stands, the arena seems like it will be an intimate environment -- every seat seems close enough to the playing floor that each fan should feel connected to the game.

Associate athletic director Tim McDiffett, a reformed sportswriter, has worked at the school for 33 years. For decades, he has been one of the folks who have tried to do more with less, “to make due,’’ when it came to facilities.

Now, he arrives at work, and like his colleagues, he soaks in what he calls a “wow’’ moment.

“I think it’s going to change how everyone looks at the university,’’ McDiffett said. “I think it’s the most transformational thing that’s happened at UAA, in my view.’’

And then he looked around the building and smiled.

“It’s nicer than I thought it could be,’’ he said.

This column is the opinion of reporter Doyle Woody. Reach him at dwoody@adn.com and check out his blog at adn.com/hockey-blog