Two decades ago, athletics at Converse College were considered expendable. Today, the school celebrates growth and reaffirms its commitment to student athletes in breaking ground on a new $3.3 million field house. The Marsha H. Gibbs Field House is expected to open at the end of next spring, according to Valkyrie athletic director Joy Couch.
"It puts our facilities in the upper echelon among the schools we play."
It will include a weight room, four locker rooms, a conference room, coaches offices, a catering kitchen, an academic support center, an indoor golf facility and a rooftop terrace. But the 14,000 square-foot building can't be completed soon enough, Couch said.
In the past decade, Converse College athletics have more than doubled and the Weisiger Center, built in 2001, isn't big enough. "We're out of locker room space. We're out of training room space. We're out of weight room space. We're out of offices," Couch said.
Inside Weisiger, nearly every available corner is stocked with overflow equipment. Outside the weight room, girls stretch in the hallways. "We don't have space for what we do now," Couch said. "We're overbooked."
Despite the lack of space, Couch said Valkyrie teams are thriving. In the past two years, Converse athletes have earned four All-American honors, the first in school history, and Couch said she has high hopes for this year's teams. In short, Converse athletics have come a long way. In the 1990s when college officials were facing budget cuts, they decided to shut down the sports programs.
From 1994 until the athletics program was reinstated in 1998, there were no Converse student athletes — at least not officially. By 2006, when Couch was named athletic director, Converse had five sports teams and 37 student-athletes, many of whom played multiple sports. This year, the school added its 10th sport and added 67 student athletes to bring its total to 154 — a 15 percent growth from last year. The athletes come from 21 states as well as Canada, England and Australia.
Couch said each of the new athletes were shown images of the new field house. The state of the art building, once constructed, will be a major recruiting tool. "You better believe we show off the plans," Couch said. "Our facility now is a really nice facility, it's just too small. This really pushes us. It puts our facilities in the upper echelon among the schools we play."
Couch, who collected more than 500 wins and four state championships as a local high school basketball coach, said the new building is among her accomplishments. "I've had a lot of great wins in my career," she said. "This ranks near the top."
Work on the site has already begun and Couch said she often watches the work with a smile on her face. "I was just out there a few minutes ago," she said Friday. "I think everyone is excited. It's bringing a lot of energy and excitement."
President Betsy Fleming said she also is looking forward to the new field house, which she said would be a sign of one of the college's growing strengths. Fleming, who joined Converse in 2005, said the school's decision to cut athletics in the 1990s was a mistake that officials moved quickly to correct.
The Weisiger Center was a sign of those efforts, Fleming said. But officials then couldn't have predicted the rise in popularity that women's sports have enjoyed in the years since. Converse has capitalized on those popularity gains, Couch said. In recent years, the school has added a swim, lacrosse, equestrian and golf teams. This year, the school is welcoming its first track and field team. "There may be other sports that would be a great fit, too," Couch said when asked if there was future growth in Converse's plans. "There's nothing immediate. But we've looked into it."
Fleming said the athletic growth is only one of Converse's successes in recent years. She pointed to a growing student body – the largest in school history – and the recent addition of several new academic programs. More construction is also planned for campus. Later this fall, Fleming said the school is expected to break ground on renovations of Pell Hall. "We are seeing many of the fruits of our labors," she said. "It's exciting."
On Sunday, Converse held a ceremony to recognize the school's growth and the donors who have made the field house possible. Fleming said more than 22 donors contributed to the building, with the field house's namesake contributing $2.5 million to the project.
The Gibbs have a long history of philanthropy in Spartanburg. Jimmy Gibbs is founder and chairman of Gibbs International Inc. In 2009, he became managing partner and chairman of Albatros Energy. Marsha Gibbs has been repeatedly honored for community service and serves on the Converse Board of Trustees. Their donation to Converse was first announced last fall but construction was delayed due to a longer-than-expected design process and a delay in choosing a construction company, Fleming said.
But not even a delay could temper the school's excitement, she said. "I am so thrilled about the momentum we're experiencing," Fleming said. "Converse is really setting an example."
This story was written by Drew Brooks of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.