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When Nebraska hosts its annual Holiday Inn Invitational Track and Field Meet at the Devaney Center Indoor Track this weekend, it will have a competitive advantage the Huskers have never had - their own sanctuary to rest, relax, fine-tune their minds, sharpen their strategies and bond together in a facility that becomes the ultimate bonus room for one of NU's most successful athletic programs.
"It's like we've gone from a 2-bedroom house to a mansion," Chad Wright told me at Monday's ribbon-cutting ceremony to commemorate a 5,400 square-foot renovation. The comprehensive remodeling project cost $180,000, but felt more like a million bucks to the men and women who eagerly installed their own personalized graphics on the new maple lockers that replaced those wobbly red metal lockers from yesteryear.
The reigning NCAA champion in the discus, Wright joined Husker teammates to celebrate the unveiling of their new locker room Monday afternoon with the same enthusiasm that Nebraska men and women basketball players showed when they moved into their new digs more than a year ago.
What were scattered lockers in six rooms shared with the men's and women's golf teams and tennis teams - not to mention visiting teams and meet officials - is now a full-fledged track and field facility that features 88 men's lockers and 66 women's lockers and caters to nearly every need and whim a student-athlete might have.
NCAA Champ: More than a Locker Room
"This is more than a locker room," Wright said. "It's a study room where I can do my homework and get cold (and purified) water from a (double-door) refrigerator. If I want to take a break, I can watch TV and keep up with things or relax and play a video game. If I was a recruit and saw all of this, there's no question I'd want to come here. This is like a big bonus for everyone here and everyone who's going to come here. I'm loving it!."
Wright, a junior from Kingston, Jamaica, isn't the only giddy Husker singing the praises of Nebraska track and field's new home. Joining him in that capacity Monday were three more Nebraska junior captains - Tim Thompson, an honorable mention All-America sprinter from Boys Town, Neb.; Ellie Grooters, an All-America hurdler from Fargo, N.D.; and Anne Martin, a talented combined events performer from Waverly, Neb., who received theBig Ten Distinguished Scholar Award in 2012.
"This new facility is so much better than what we had," Thompson said. "It creates a great environment for all of us, not only for competing, but for pleasure, academics and recruiting. It humbles me when Tom Osborne, who has so many accolades, respects track and field so much that he wanted to do something like this to make us even more successful. This is more than just a locker room, and we're all very grateful for that. We can get a lot of work done in here, yet still relax and chill in the same space.
"When you're a Division I athlete, you need an environment like this," Thompson said. "There are so many things that hold us up, but not when you have a place like this. Whether you're a shot putter or a middle distance runner, this is something that will only increase our level of intensity every day because we can combine our work with our relaxation. I mean, this is a really big deal ... for all of us."
Captains: Teams Can Get a Little Bit Closer
Grooters and Martin cut the ribbon to the women's locker room after Wright and Thompson shared that honor for the men's locker room, and all four captains seemed equally excited about the benefits.
"This is just a good place to hang out before and after practice," Grooters said. "We finally have a central location for all of us to connect. We all meet at different times during the day, but now that we have a facility like this, we'll probably get together here more than we ever have. It's 'our space' and a common area for both teams. We've always been a close team, but this gives us an opportunity to become much closer.
"There's something tangible when you can all hang out together and interact with each other," Grooters said. "We've never had space like this before, so we don't have any examples of how much it helps. But I can say that it already has. We have more people up here today at the same time than I've ever seen up here before. We're a big university, and we're seeing people today that we don't otherwise see.
"A locker room is a pretty central aspect of any sport," Grooters said. "In the past, we would come to practice, set our bag down near the track - both indoors and outdoors - pick up our bag after practice and then go home and shower. We've needed something like this, and now that we have it, we're all appreciative."
Martin Thanks T.O. for Making It All Happen
Martin thanks Osborne for leading the charge to make the new locker room a reality. "This means so much to all of us," she said. "First, Tom Osborne was behind us getting our new outdoor track. But I think this facility really shows how much he appreciates and respects what the track team has done over all these years."
Osborne retired last week, but remains a pivotal part of the athletic department as Nebraska Athletic Director Emeritus. He has been instrumental in facility improvements across the board, including the new locker room for a track program that has won three NCAA women's indoor championships, plus 67 Big Eight and Big 12 Conference team titles and one Big Ten Conference championship - all in the past 32 seasons.
"We're showing how much of a community Nebraska really is," Grooters said. "I think it's just great when an athletic director is willing to take funds generated from football and help support every sport we have. The university is a community of its own, and he (Osborne) supports everything about the university. I think that's unique, and I know how much it will help our recruiting. We can finally integrate our lives into our sport."
Nebraska coaches point out that Katie White, a fifth-year senior distance runner from Broken Bow, Neb., didn't even know Nebraska had track and field lockers until the end of her second season. Da'Nelle Earl, the operations and recruiting assistant for Nebraska track and field, knows why that's true. "We would show prospects our recruiting path, but not the scattered lockers that were behind the walls," she said.
Old Lockers Are Recruiting Musts to Avoid
Frankly, those old school lockers were not showcase worthy. "We're not the only school with that problem," said Carrie Lane, Nebraska's second-year throws coach. "Some of the big track powers have new combined facilities," she said, "but a lot of track programs don't have locker rooms, especially since track is mostly an outdoor sport."
Maggi Thorne, a one-time Nebraska hurdler and now assistant director of NU Athletics' Capital Planning and Construction team, coordinated the locker room improvements and admits she was well aware of some of the program's biggest shortcomings.
"This was a very exciting project for me," she said after the twin ribbon-cutting ceremony. When she transferred from junior college in California to compete at Nebraska 10 years ago, Thorne didn't see any lockers on her recruiting trip. "I didn't even know they existed because no one wanted to show them," she said. "I think it was because those lockers were so small, you couldn't even put a back pack in one."
Thorne has played a vital role in NU's major capital planning projects, including East Stadium expansion, the Hendricks Training Complex and the volleyball, gymnastics, wrestling home that will become a Devaney Center reality next fall.
Capital Planner Thorne Plays Heartfelt Role
The track and field project was near and dear to Thorne's heart. "We were working with a facility from a different time and a different era," she said. "To bring track and field up to the standards of our other sports has been really meaningful, especially when you're helping the sport that you competed in," she said. "There's a lot of joy there."
The good news is there's more to come. "When we put the outdoor siding up for the long hall outside the new locker rooms, we're planning to install big windows, so everyone can see outside," Thorne said. "We've always believed that you make a facility whole one piece at a time, and we're eager to get all sports fully vested so they can compete at the highest level."
Thorne predicts the new track and field locker rooms will help both teams build stronger team friendships and increase team spirit and camaraderie.
"This facility is meant to be as functional as any other sport could be," Thorne said. "There's no doubt about how it creates a competitive advantage, whether it's in the locker room, the classroom or just getting everyone better prepared to compete."
Pepin: Competitive, Recruiting Advantages
Nebraska Coach Gary Pepin has no doubt about that. In fact, when his Huskers host the 13-team Holiday Inn Invitational Friday beginning at 4 p.m. and Saturday beginning at noon, Nebraska's veteran head coach can already see men and women athletes retreating to their new sanctuary to rest, relax, block out the world and reach a competitive mindset they might not otherwise achieve.
"We've always wanted something like this," Pepin said, referring to the new floors, the painted walls, the updated showers, the ceiling tile, the lighting and the benches next to the new lockers with individual graphics. Yes, Nebraska deserves the kitchenettes and vanities with granite counter tops, the new lounges with 60-inch plasma TVs and a sound system controllable by each student-athlete's phone equipped with the right app.
Pepin may not require such amenities, but even he has to smile when he sees recessed lighting in the walls of a locker room designed for a study area with a booth, pendant lights and lounge furniture.
"This really will help recruiting," Pepin said.
When a coach of his stature speaks, he can make a powerful point by the sheer inflection of his voice. "We've all worked hard to get this," Pepin said, "and I think we deserve everything we've worked so hard to get."
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