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“That dirt lot has been transformed into a state of the art center for CSUSM athletics,” says CSUSM President Karen Haynes on Sept. 1 during the ribbon cutting of the college’s new sports center. Courtesy photo
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Cal State San Marcos christens The Sports Center

SAN MARCOS — The 250 guests, mostly clad in royal blue and black, sat under a white canopy on a warm Sept. 1 afternoon. They sang the school fight song, cheered on the school’s dance troupe and clapped as the band played the alma mater.

At most universities, this scene happens almost on a weekly basis on game day.

But this is all new to the students, athletes and administrators at Cal State San Marcos as Sept. 1 marked the ribbon-cutting for the university’s newest addition: the 1,400-seat Sports Center, which officials hailed as a “missing link” for its sports teams looking for a home and a campus looking for a rallying point.

“Eighteen months ago it was just a dirt lot, and I joined members of our extraordinary athletic department in donning hard hats … while behind us stood an artist rendering of what would one day become home for Cal State San Marcos’ athletics,” CSUSM President Karen Haynes said. “As you can see today…that artist’s rendering is a reality and more. That dirt lot has been transformed into a state of the art center for CSUSM athletics. But more than remarkable aesthetics is that we have created another rallying point of pride for our campus and our community.”

The $11.4 million Sports Center was completed this summer, and the university’s indoor athletics programs — Men’s and Women’s basketball and Women’s volleyball — have been practicing in it since the summer.

But the Sept. 1 ribbon-cutting offered the general public the first opportunity to tour the facility before the Cougars Women’s Volleyball team played its first game in the Sports Center later that evening.

The gym has a maximum capacity of 2,200 people, but seats 1,400, which was by design, officials said.

“We did research and learned that the average Division II home attendance at sporting events is between 500 to 900,” said Mathew Berson, a spokesman for the athletics department. “If you build the gym too big, you get that empty feeling, which is what we didn’t want to do.”

The gym was a critical part of the school’s transition from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or NAIA, to the NCAA Division II. The school enters the final year of its transitional period, and will become a full-fledged member of the California Collegiate Athletic Association conference in fall 2017.

The Sept. 1 ceremony included a pep rally during which the school unveiled its new fight song, and a performance by the Cougars dance team and the San Marcos High School Band.

It also included speeches by CSUSM Women’s Volleyball Coach Andrea Leonard and Athletic Director Jennifer Milo, who referred to the facility as a “game changer.”

“I am confident when I say that now we are the envy of over 300 NCAA Division II institutions,” Milo said. “This facility truly has been our missing link since 2010, when we started sponsoring volleyball and basketball.”

The university’s indoor sports programs have boasted gaudy records since their inception, all the while playing in front of sparse crowds at local junior college and high-school gymnasiums, including Pacific Ridge and Escondido high schools and MiraCosta College.

“It’s awesome to finally be able to only have to walk across the street or across campus to get to a game, not get on the 78 freeway and drive 20 minutes,” said Brooke Butler, a senior outside hitter for the Cougars volleyball team. “We are playing for all of our teammates who didn’t have a chance to play in this new gym.”

Butler said she believed that the Sports Center represents a turning point for the campus, which has struggled to build an on-campus life.

“It changes things when you have an arena, it becomes the center of campus,” Butler said. “I’m just excited and grateful to be part of the group that gets to open it up.”