Alumni and parent support of athletics facilities gives Bucknell a competitive edge.

By Jeffrey Lott

Kinney Natatorium

To play water polo, you have to be in the best shape of any athlete,” says John McBride, coach of both the men’s and women’s teams and a newcomer to Bucknell. His commanding voice can be heard above the shouts of excited fans in the sunny Kinney Natatorium. He stalks the broad pool deck like a general, waving tattooed arms for emphasis. A former juvenile corrections and police officer, McBride coached at Brown for seven seasons before coming to Bucknell.

“Why leave Brown for Bucknell?” I ask McBride.

“It’s a lot like the Ivy League,” he says. “Same students, same academic atmosphere, same competitive atmosphere — but the program gets more support here.” The water polo program has its own endowment, started by the Richards family, Christine ’76 and Dan Richards ’78. The 57-meter pool in the Kinney Natatorium makes a big difference too: “No aquatic facility I know of is as water polo-friendly as this one. It makes a phenomenal ‘sell’ in recruiting.”

The 10-year-old Kinney seems to work the same magic for Bucknell’s swimming teams. As the home pool of Pennsylvania’s interscholastic swimming and diving championships since 2005, it’s attracted more than one top high school swimmer to apply to Bucknell.

Kaitlyn Sweeney ’12 competed in the States all four years of high school with her team. She says the pool “was one of my deciding factors. I also needed a school where there was competitive athletics but also good academics.”

During two days at Bucknell in mid-April, every student-athlete I talk with has a positive attitude about his or her sport and about the University’s well-kept athletics facilities. After touring the entire Kenneth Langone Athletics and Recreation Center (known collectively as the KLARC), I see what they mean. Swimmer Matt Segar ’12 loves the Kinney for its abundant natural light. “Pools vary widely,” he says, “and there’s something to be said for such an open building — it makes you feel better.” Segar also is a tour guide for Admissions. He describes the look on prospective students’ faces when they walk in the KLARC: “You can tell it’s making an impact.”

The equipment and workout spaces, supported in large part by donors, are top notch. There’s the new erg room for the women’s rowing team, winners of seven consecutive Patriot League championships. The squash courts are being gutted and rebuilt to international competition standards and scheduled to reopen by the start of fall semester. At the far end of the KLARC, of course, is Sojka Pavilion, one of the best facilities of its kind and home to Bison basketball — a program that has only grown stronger in the decade since the arena opened.

Across Route 15 on Saturday afternoon, it was the same: The facilities at West Fields, many of them built or refurbished in the past few years, all are above par.

Golfers will get the reference, because just up the road is Bucknell’s brand-new 5,600-square-foot indoor golf practice building with locker rooms for the Bison players, a video-equipped swing diagnostic area, an indoor putting green and hitting bays.

The soccer teams play on grass at Emmitt Field; field hockey and women’s lacrosse teams share an artificial pitch at Graham Field; and the lighted playing fields are separated by Holmes Stadium, a two-sided grandstand that provides seating for both fields, plus press box, locker rooms and spectator facilities. The names on these facilities reflect a constancy of support for Bison sports among parents and alumni.

I watch while more than 100 high school field hockey players learn new skills at an all-day clinic conducted by Bucknell Assistant Field Hockey Coach Jamie Montgomery, other staff and women from the Bison squad. Across Route 15, track teams from more than a dozen colleges compete in the Bison Outdoor Classic at Christy Mathewson–Memorial Stadium. It’s one of the last events that takes place at the stadium before the summer installation of new FieldTurf and track surfacing — and even bigger improvements are planned for other areas of the stadium facility, too.

There just isn’t time to take it all in.

But I’m a huge baseball fan, so I head over to Depew Field, the recently renovated ballpark named for coach Gene Depew ’71, who’s been coaching the Bison for 31 years. Bucknell is playing Lehigh in the first of four games between the teams this weekend. A crowd of about 500 fans — including many alumni and parents on campus for a celebration of Depew’s retirement after 31 years as head coach — are scattered around the brick-walled field.

Linda Allen P’12 drove from Riverside, Conn., to watch her son, Mark Figgie Jr. ’12, play left field. Mark Figgie Sr. ’78 played baseball and football at Bucknell, and sons Zach ’03 and Ben ’10 played for Depew, so Allen has seen the field come a long way since Zach was on the team. “It’s awesome,” she says of the new dugouts and artificial turf.

Ingrid Donato P’12 is here to see her son Bobby ’12 play one of his last few home games. A Williamsport physician, she gets to as many games as she can. “The old field used to be uneven,” she says. “It’s great that people saw the need and met it, and it’s a perfect facility for a college. It’s a beautiful place to watch a game.” It’s going to get even better. A press box and permanent grandstands will be added as soon as funding is secured for the final phase of West Fields construction.

Before heading back to the KLARC, I stop by nearby Becker Field to watch a few innings of softball between the women of Bucknell and Army. Becker Field, named by Hall-of-Famer Dawn Becker ’85 in honor of her parents, Charles and Karen Becker, also is immaculate with brick dugouts, a manicured dirt infield and a lush grass outfield.

Tom Harvey, assistant director of athletics fundraising, recounts alumnae memories of the old softball facility in the 1980s: “They had a field and a bench, that’s all.”

Overall improvements to the facilities and endowments for less visible sports such as water polo have “allowed Bucknell teams to play at a markedly higher level against teams of a higher caliber, including some in the Big East and Big Ten,” says Harvey.

Bucknell will raise about $2 million in support for the athletics program this year to supplement University funding. Most of it comes from former athletes and from parents. “Our goal is to build on Bucknell athletics’ strong foundation and successful traditions to ensure that current and future Bucknell students can achieve tremendous levels of success,” says Director of Athletics John Hardt. “These new and improved facilities represent a huge step in accomplishing that goal.”

Jeffrey Lott is a writer and baseball umpire in Yorklyn, Del.

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