Not only is this the 50th anniversary of Kates Gymnasium at Ashland University, it is also the 50th season of volleyball at the school. To celebrate, the Eagles are welcoming back members of past volleyball teams for a reunion and to watch the current AU squad take on Purdue Northwest on Saturday (Sept. 30) at 2 p.m.
The Eagles will start the weekend's competition on Friday (Sept. 29) at 7 p.m. against Davenport.
The celebration this weekend will be fitting in a way. The Eagles have won 19 straight matches in the historic building they honor this weekend.
"I think us being able to do that, even though [the streak] is not something we talk about every day, is about the tradition and history we can draw on from those student-athletes that were here before," said current AU head coach Cass Dixon. "They're the ones that established our character as a team. In doing so, we take great pride in playing on our floor."
One of those student-athletes returning is Vicki (Tinsler) Proctor '79, who played for the Eagles from 1975-78 and helped turn the program into what it is today. When Proctor played, the gym was different, the atmosphere was different, the competition was different and the game was different.
"It was a different time in history. That was right about the time they started giving scholarships for women, not Ashland, but at the bigger schools," she said. "We were still on an even playing field and we played big teams like Ohio State and Cleveland State. We were really competitive. We played Ohio State and almost beat them, because we were fairly even. It was exciting going to large universities and we were just a tiny little college back then. That's what I remember the most is competing against the bigger teams."
Back then, Kates Gymnasium was the home to all the indoor sports teams – varsity and club – and the building housed all the physical education classes.
"I can remember going to volleyball practices in there, lacrosse practice in there when it was too snowy. We'd bang the balls off the walls," said Proctor. "I was a PE major so we were in there all the time. We kind of lived there. The only thing else they had was the fieldhouse. It was just that main building."
Proctor, her teammates, and those who came before and after have set the foundation for the volleyball program, which has won 874 matches since its inception in 1968. The Eagles have qualified for seven NCAA Tournaments in the last 13 years, including three in the last six years under Dixon.
That foundation was built on family, something that has stayed with the program from the early days through current times.
"It was awesome to come here and have that family aspect that has always been here," said Arian Martin '12, a former AU player and current assistant coach. "Fast-forwarding to now, it's also a big part of our atmosphere here. That hasn't changed much."
"The team, we were like a family," Proctor said. "It was just four years, but we had older people, younger people, so it was a family. We spent a lot of time together. I'm looking forward to seeing old friends, catching up and reliving the old times. I'm excited to see the game, see how the game has changed. Back then we were on the cutting edge of doing some maneuvering, but I think the game has changed a lot since then."
The game has evolved in many ways from the size of the players, to the strategy involved, even to the way scores are kept.
"Fifty years ago, you had female student-athletes who were at best maybe 5-foot-10, and now we have players on average that are six feet, six-two, six-four," said Dixon. "The specialization of the positions is really interesting when you look at how the game has changed throughout the years."
Through it all, Kates Gymnasium has been the home of Ashland Volleyball – the place of ups and downs (there have been plenty more ups) and where fans have seen the game flourish at Ashland University.
For Martin, the opportunity to coach at the place she poured so much into as a player was something she could not pass up.
"When Cass asked if I wanted to come back, it was a definite yes on being able to come home to where I went to school, where I left my blood, sweat and tears on the court," said Martin. "To be able to coach the athletes here, it wasn't even a question to come back to Ashland."
The Eagles will now carry the legacy of their past and that of Kates Gymnasium onto the floor when they take on the Panthers, seeking their 20th straight win at home.
"That's unheard of. It's great to have that legacy that continues on even from two years ago to this year with a different group of girls," Martin said. "It really is a program development, coming from two years ago. It's attributed to the program's success and not just the individuals."
The Eagles know they will be tested. It will be a fight. But their history, tradition and Kates Gymnasium are worth fighting for.
"Last week, we were taxed by Tiffin and that was the thing that turned it around for us," Dixon said. "This is our floor. We own it. We need to act like it's ours and we own it. The girls can really identify with that and it really draws on the importance of the history and tradition we've established."