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SOU’s brand new Lithia Motors Pavilion, Student Rec Center nearing completion

For the Southern Oregon University athletics department, it’s a move that’s been three years in the making.

The brand new 1,400-seat Lithia Motors Pavilion — a project that cost $24 million — has seen the first wave of Raiders move into offices across the hall from the gym.

And just like a young kid on Christmas morning, they were more than happy to show things off during a tour of the new facilities for local media members on Thursday afternoon.

“It’s been an amazing process with a lot ups and downs,” SOU associate athletic director Bobby Heiken said. “It’s amazing the amount of success that we’ve had without a home. We were all living out of the oldest dorms on campus at Ivy Hall and the Cascade Complex. We didn’t have locker rooms. Up until a couple of years ago, no teams had locker rooms. Everything, we were all operating out of a backpack, and that’s tough to do.

“When you heard the coaches talk about recruiting, one of the biggest things is, ‘If we can get them in town, they’re going to come here,’ because we live in such a beautiful area. Now, you add this to it. When we walk student-athletes into this facility, it’s another plus for Southern Oregon University and our athletic programs.”

Along with the brand new Student Rec Center — which has a final cost of $17.7 million, all of which was through student fees that were approved by a student vote in 2012, and is also getting close to opening its doors — the “South Siskiyou” area at SOU will feature the newest facilities on campus.

It’s a pleasant change from what the Raiders were forced into dealing with just days into 2016.

When the 60-year-old McNeal Hall was forced to be demolished in January 2016, SOU’s basketball and wrestling programs had to find gym space elsewhere for both practices and games, most notably at Ashland’s Mountain Avenue Gym.

The hope was that the project would be done by Christmas, or when the calendar flipped to 2018, but the project got pushed back to a date that saw both Raider basketball teams playing their final home games at Ashland High.

Be it basketball or wrestling, SOU teams practiced early in the morning or late at night, working with Ashland High AD Karl Kemper to try and make something work for all parties.

“Any time there was an open gym, we were the ants running around in it,” SOU volleyball coach Josh Rohlfing quipped.

There’s no need to worry about working everybody into each day’s schedule now.

“Having been a coach at Ashland High and knowing the people around there, the difficulty was feeling like we were becoming a burden on them as part of our community,” Rohlfing said. “It’s going to be really nice for us to feel like we can schedule with one another and not feel like we’re putting somebody else out to get gym space. That’s probably the biggest part of it, and obviously it’s going to be a lot easier to get into the gym any part of the day.”

In the days of McNeal Hall, the gym was shared by both the intercollegiate athletic teams as well as regular physical education classes and intramural athletics.

With Litihia Motors Pavilion opening up and the Student Rec Center having its own gym, SOU student-athletes will have access to their new digs whenever they desire without much conflict.

“If a student-athlete has a break between classes and wants to get some shots up, if a couple volleyball players want to come in, they can do that now,” Heiken said. “It gives that real college feel of, ‘I’m a student-athlete, and when I’m not going to classes or doing homework, I’ve got the availability to go down and work on my game.’”

Lithia Motors Pavilion will feature team-specific locker rooms for men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s wrestling, men’s and women’s soccer and volleyball.

Classrooms that are located just down the hall from the locker rooms will double as meeting rooms for most, if not all, of SOU’s athletics teams. The same area of the building is where SOU’s Health & Physical Education department offices will be located.

The view from those downstairs offices? A look right out at Raider Stadium.

“The biggest parts (that have been the most impressive) have been the little touches,” Rohlfing said. “Just having the ability to have your own lockers, have the digital things on doors to get in, having TVs in your team rooms, all those things that add to the experience of being a collegiate athlete, I think, have been the biggest difference.”

Above all else, the addition of Lithia Motors Pavilion and the Student Rec Center is just the latest development for an SOU athletic department that has seen a lot go right in the last few years.

And that’s even when some of their best and most-storied teams weren’t even playing games on the SOU campus.

Now, though, they have a place to call home — and they’re certainly happy about it.

“Aug. 24 is when we’re going to have our first volleyball tournament here. It seems like a long time away, but I can’t wait for that to happen,” Heiken said. “I can’t wait to see not only the excitement, but actually how the facility works. Because of the whole facility and how it’s situated now, with the grand plaza how it comes into the pavilion and into the football stadium, that first fall Saturday where we’ve got students here and we’ve got community members here, it’s going to be a pretty amazing sight.”

Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.