By Everett Brazil, III
The Newkirk Herald Journal
NEWKIRK — Seniors in the Newkirk High School (NHS) basketball team, cheer squad and band had a special evening Tuesday, Feb. 11 as they celebrated Senior Night in front of a packed house to recognize all their hard work and dedication during their high school years. What made the night even more special however wasn’t just Senior Night, as they celebrated the evening in the new gym, a milestone for the Tiger and Lady Tiger basketball programs, offering them a facility they can be proud to call their own.
The seniors couldn’t be happier with the event.
“It feels really good to finally play in the new gym,” said senior Tyler Coffman. “Playing in the new gym on Senior Night made it 10 times better. It made being a senior who is participating in Senior Night have so many more good memories.”
The new gym has been several years in the making. The Tigers and Lady Tigers had previously played at Mark Branch Fieldhouse, which is also used for the wrestling program. Located on South Maple Street, it sits across the street from where NHS previously sat, south of the Kay County Courthouse. A new high school opened in 2013, across the community from the old gym, an inconvenience that forced the middle school players to be bused to the facility for practice.
Mark Branch Fieldhouse opened more than 50 years ago, and the need for a new facility became apparent as it aged.
“The other facility has a lot of history to it, but we needed to be able to fit more people,” said NPS Athletic Director Graham Snelding. “The other one was starting to wear out, and have more problems, and everyone we played had a nicer facility than us.”
The facility had been updated through the years, which includes the addition of LED lights and paint, but it was time for a new facility.
The push began in February 2017, when voters approved a $10.475 million bond to fund not only the new facility, but also the Early Childhood Center at the elementary school, band instruments, technology and transportation improvements, a new track at the football field and a roof for the middle school. Area wind farms also contributed financially to the project.
Work was contracted to Atlas Construction, and the project began summer 2018. It was hoped construction would be complete for the 2019 graduation ceremony, but the project featured numerous setbacks, including wet work conditions and the bankruptcy of the construction company.
The school pushed for opening Senior Night, when the Tigers welcomed the Tonkawa Buccaneers. A pep assembly was held at 2:40 that afternoon.
Administration leaders are happy with the facility.
“It’s nice to have one by the high school, where we are currently located,” said Superintendent Brady Barnes.
A walk inside the new facility brings wonders to the senses, most notably the spacious opening about the court. Eyes drifting upward are set on a four-sided scoreboard hanging from the ceiling, while a second story balcony increases not just room for fans, but also room for scooters and wheelchairs, along with an elevator for access.
The gym attaches to the school at the Commons, which becomes a spacious concession stand, complete with tables and chairs for fans to use.
Underneath the stands are the locker rooms, along with a state-of-the-art video room to watch games.
The facility also serves as a saferoom for NHS during inclement weather, and boasts a new air conditioning system, something Mark Branch Fieldhouse lacked.
“It’s amazing, it’s a big asset to the community,” Snelding said. “It’s one of the top facilities in the area.”
Snelding sees that as a big advantage for the school. For one, it gives the Tigers and Lady Tigers a facility to be excited about.
“I think it‘s good for the kids to have something like this,” Snelding said. “We go to all these places that have nice gyms, and now we won’t be intimidated by (playing in them).”
The athletes are also thrilled about and proud of the new building.
“I like it because there is a good soundsystem. There is air conditioning, and it just gives a good feeling playing in that gym,” said Devon Leven. “I really like the new gym.”
It is also an asset to the community, and may well bring new pride to the basketball program, and the school.
“It reflects positively on Newkirk basketball, wrestling, on NHS. It shows that the school’s important,” Snelding said. “It shows the kids basketball and wrestling are important to the town.”
That sentiment is not lost on the players themselves, as they also see it as a benefit.
“We’ve been waiting for a while to play in this gym, and I couldn’t be happier,” said Hallie Riddle. “To me, it’s super nice, and I think the new gym is going to be like our new home. It’s a chance to start over, and bring back Lady Tiger tradition.”
Coach Megan Schieber played in Mark Branch Fieldhouse as a Lady Tiger in high school, and she returned to her alma mater for the 2019-2020 season as head coach. Mark Branch Fieldhouse played in important role in her life in those years, and their last game in the gym Feb. 7 was hard.
“The old gym had a lot of great memories for me, and it was a place that was really special for me, so that night was emotional for playing that last night, but it’s a chance to start over,” she said.
Still, she sees the new gym as a step forward for both teams, and there is a new excitement to play basketball among the players.
“Our girls are excited. The kids are already ready to get in the gym more. Hopefully it’ll catapult us and get our programs turned around,” Shieber said. “It brings school pride back, just having a nice place.”
That may well prove true of the other team as well, as more opposing fans may make the trip to Newkirk to watch a game in such a nice facility.
“People want to bring their fans here, being in the school system, and being in facilities like these,” Snelding said. “All those things matter when you’re looking for a place to live.”
At the end of the day, though, it is ultimately the players’ love the gym the most, and those sentiments are not going away.
“It is amazing. All of the rooms are great. My favorite, personally, is the locker room,” said Gunner Cole. “It’s great, it is awesome to play in such a nice gym.”