Coastal Carolina plays to mostly full house in debut of The HTC Center

Standing near one of the entranceways to the court and looking across the floor of The HTC Center at a student section packed full of teal some 15 minutes before tipoff Friday night, Coastal Carolina University athletic director Hunter Yurachek saw a snapshot of what school officials likely envisioned at least a time or two in planning toward this night, toward the opening of a new home for Chanticleer basketball.

Capacitywise, that end of the arena offers about double the previous allotment of student seating that was available inside cramped, old Kimbel Arena, and on this night there were even more on the other end as Coastal tipped off its season against Akron.

Overall, there were a few empty seats here and there – but not many – and the crowd response seemed appropriate for the long-awaited, much-anticipated opening of the new 3,205-seat venue.

“It’s awesome. Some nights we struggled to get 400 students in Kimbel Arena,” Yurachek said, surveying the scene. “And that end seats about 700. This end will have another 700. So to have over 1,000 students in this venue will be very exciting tonight.”

According to Michael Jacobs, CCU’s director of athletics ticketing, the game was considered a sell-out and included a student attendance of 1,238.

It was just one night, but the Chants’ hope is that the increased seating and significantly enhanced amenities inside The HTC Center will not only bring the school’s basketball arena into the 21st century but will also help grow the fan base beyond what could be accommodated inside the 1,039-seat Kimbel Arena.

Jim Schoener, a Carolina Forest resident who says he normally goes to about five to six games a year with his daughter, used to look to co-workers with season tickets in hopes they had extras they weren’t using – often in December and January around the holidays. With such a limited capacity in years past, most games were sold out before the season, except for whatever tickets were returned by the visiting team and made available to the public.

For the season opener, though, Schoener bought his tickets two days in advance and expressed his excitement to be part of the evening.

“It’s the home opener, new building. This is kind of like a historic moment,” Schoener said. “And I really have nothing to do with the university. We like to support the community.”

Lance Thompson, who has been a fixture at Coastal baseball games with his family over the years and said he started following the basketball team a few years ago, echoed those sentiments.

“I think [the excitement] is just kind of moving into the future and having more opportunity for students and the community to come out,” Thompson said. “Tickets were so hard to come by before, they were so limited. … A lot of times the visiting team would release their [extra] tickets right before the game so if you wanted to come over to stand [and wait, you could], but you never knew if you were going to get them or not. It’s so much nicer now that you know it can accommodate more people.”

As for Schoener, he arrived about 25 minutes before game time and conveyed no problems finding a parking space, saying he had just a five-minute walk from his car to the arena.

“A little exercise never hurt anybody,” he said.

That was the one concern for CCU officials Friday night, though. With the lot nearest the arena reserved for donors and largest of the general lots – the gravel Elvington Lot off S.C. 544 – unfamiliar to most fans, there was some uncertainty as to where everybody was supposed to park, Yurachek said. But he reiterated there were plenty of spots to go around if people knew where to look.

“There’s not any glitches that our fans would know about, but during the course of planning, there’s obviously things from this game that we’ll improve upon for the next game,” Yurachek said. “I think the biggest issue so far has been just the parking. It’s the first time most people have come to this venue. It’s not set up like Brooks Stadium on a Saturday. Most people are used to coming to Brooks Stadium for 10 years, so the parking has been the only real issue that we’ve had so far tonight.”

As for the scene inside the arena, the fans – and especially the students – made themselves heard in the game’s bigger moments.

Tyler Blaschak, a CCU senior who has been one of the more devoted and spirited student fans in recent years and always a fixture at the front of the student section, was among the first into the arena for the opener, dressed for the occasion with a teal-toned tie and basketball netting on his head and hoping the turnout and crowd response would match that of the old days inside Kimbel.

“Kimbel was a nice, small atmosphere. You could really make an impact, I felt like,” Blaschak said. “It was such a small place, but it’s nice to open the season up – especially my senior year – in a place like this.”

Many Coastal fans have been waiting quite a while for a place like this. Matt Hogue, CCU’s associate athletics director for enhanced media and radio announcer who has been calling Chants basketball games since the 1997-98 season, said he’d been hearing discussions from the time he arrived on campus about the prospects for one day building a new arena. It was four or five years ago when he started to think it might actually happen.

Of course, The HTC Center was initially slated to be completed in time for the start of last season before construction delays pushed that timetable back to the summer. But better late than never.

“Coastal’s kind of lately been a campus of milestones in so many ways,” Hogue said before the game. “Football’s only 10 years old, there’s new buildings developing every day, and [there’s] the growth of the campus in terms of enrollment. So I feel like around here there’s always kind of a perpetual sense of change, sense of positive movement, sense of momentum. And I think it’s just kind of continuing. ...

“But certainly tonight, opening this building after being in another facility for 40 years is another one of those milestones.”