The sound of sneakers squeaking, basketballs bouncing and people cheering filled the gym at Howard Community College yesterday.
It was a welcome ruckus for school officials, who hope to hear a lot more excitement around the athletic center now that a $1.8 million renovation is complete.
Yesterday's event - a good-natured if less-than-skillful free-throw showdown between two teams of faculty, staff, trustees and other supporters - was part of a celebration for the building's first overhaul since it was dedicated in 1977.
New amenities include a wood floor in the gym, a slip-free surface around the pool, revamped locker rooms and air conditioning.
"It is much improved," said Kate Hetherington, vice president of student services. She said students have been pleased since they began using the facilities in September.
As the number of students has grown approximately 8 percent for each of the past few years, and more traditional college-age students have chosen HCC, school administrators have made the athletic facilities a priority.
HCC's leaders see improved athletic facilities and the competitive teams they are expected to produce as an important means to distinguish the school.
Students graduating from high school "want a four-year experience in a two-year college setting," said Diane Schumacher, athletic director. "Athletics are expensive, there is no question. ... But if it is done well, it will pay off in years to come.
Community members are welcome to use the athletic building, gaining access by taking a class or buying a pass. Senior citizens often use the pool, as does Central Maryland Rehabilitation. But the focus is on adding to the student experience.
That includes increasing the number of students playing competitive sports at Howard, and at four-year schools after they transfer.
"We want to be able to give students not only a quality, affordable education, but a chance to compete as well," said Steve Musselman, athletic center manger and the cross country and track coach. "It's good to see the administration taking a serious interest in athletics."
Competitive sports have been increasing in popularity at the school, said Schumacher. HCC, which is part of the National Junior College Athletic Association and the Maryland JUCO Conference, has teams for men and women in cross country, soccer, basketball, track, lacrosse and tennis as well as women's volleyball.
HCC is one of three community colleges in Maryland to offer a diverse range of athletic teams, Schumacher said. Other schools focus their resources on a few key sports.
Soccer helped draw Christen Pena-Ariet of Columbia and Catherine McMahon of Laurel to HCC. Both are freshman forwards.
"I don't think I would have come" if there had not been a soccer team, McMahon said.
"We're lucky we got here right when it happened," said Pena-Ariet of the renovations. "Things are much more high-tech now."
"I'm very excited that they put air conditioning in," said Daryl Beard, an audio-visual specialist for the school and former volleyball coach. "It's long overdue."
He said, "It was difficult to have a full two-hour practice because it was so oppressive."
Other changes include an expanded fitness lab that features exercise machines, cardiovascular equipment such as treadmills and bicycles, and free weights in a bright, mirror-lined room. The pool has a $20,000 deck, using concrete and sand to provide a safer surface, new ventilation and ceramic tiles. New clocks adorn the gym walls, and staff members have new offices and a private locker room.
More lockers, more private showers and dressing areas, and shower heads raised to 6 feet, 5 inches will encourage people to visit, and to leave clean. The school's 121 student athletes have separate locker rooms, as well as a new training room for treating injuries and a laundry facility for team uniforms.
"It's nice," McMahon said. "The weight room is good for off season, and the locker room is good."
The state provided about 36.5 percent of the funding for the project, and the county covered the rest.
The athletic renaissance will continue this year with three new soccer fields. A $350,000 state contribution toward the cost of the fields is being matched by the Soccer Association of Columbia. And although Hetherington said the budgetary future is uncertain in Maryland, a lacrosse field and a track are on the wish list, as are baseball and softball fields.
"It will be nice to see the students more enthusiastic about events here," Beard said.
Attracting student athletes and spectators is difficult, he said, because no students live on campus and most hold jobs.
He hopes a well-established athletic program, boosted by new facilities, will draw students who make sports a priority.
As Howard builds its reputation as one of the top community colleges in Maryland, Schumacher said, "combining that with a top athletic program is a win-win situation."