When you take the Cold Spring Lane exit west off the Jones Falls Expressway and weave your way up the hill toward the new Loyola University Ridley Athletic Complex for the first time, you can't help but be in awe as the 6,000-seat stadium comes into view.
The $62 million lacrosse and soccer facility, which opens today when the Greyhounds men's lacrosse team plays host to Duke, looks a bit like a miniature replica of Camden Yards (especially at night) and a bit like a modern cathedral. It's a dream nearly 15 years in the making, and the Greyhounds are unabashedly giddy to see it finished.
"When I was running for president of the school [in 2005], they drove me over to the site to look at it," said the Rev. Brian F. Linnane, Loyola's president. "It was nothing. It was a landfill. I couldn't imagine how this was going to be transformed into a state-of-the-art athletic complex. But to see it develop over time has just been incredible. I watched it from a distance, visited it in the summer, and I'd seen the drawings and models of it. But I hadn't been over there in awhile, and when I saw it for the first time, it just exceeded my wildest expectations. I'm immensely excited."
The complex, in addition to having a 6,000-seat grandstand with lights, has a synthetic turf field, a video scoreboard, a practice field, a weight room, a locker room with a 65-inch flat screen television for the home team and the visitors, offices for the coaching staff; press, presidential and VIP boxes, and concession areas. It's the largest capital project in the history of Loyola University, and at least for lacrosse, there probably isn't anything like it in the country.
"When I was walking away from it the other day, I thought, 'You know, there probably isn't a nicer place to play lacrosse in Division I,' " Loyola men's coach Charlie Toomey said. "John Hopkins certainly had tradition, and Syracuse has the big-time atmosphere of the Carrier Dome, but I believe we're going to have that big-time atmosphere now for Loyola."
The idea for the privately financed complex, located about two miles west of the campus, can actually be traced to a conversation 15 years ago between former Loyola president the Rev. Harold Ridley and athletic director Joe Boylan.
"This really was Father Ridley's vision," said Boylan, who has been the athletic director since 1991. "He was determined to make sure athletics were an important part of the university, but he also wanted to enhance the academic side of it, too. He knew this would free up four acres in the middle of campus for future academic buildings."
The university purchased the land for the facility in 1998, but the project took awhile to get going. The school had to convince the city and the surrounding neighborhoods it was a good idea.
"I think I went to 48 community meetings before we got city approval," Boylan said. "And it cost us a lot more than we thought it would in 1998."
At one point, the school's Board of Trustees - which included Linnane before he became president - decided to revisit the project to see whether the school could really afford to spend that much money on an athletic complex.
"We really had to revisit it because it was such a huge commitment," Linnane said, adding that the project eventually did come in on budget. "We had to ask the question: Are we really going to do this? But in the end, we all felt very strongly that if we let this opportunity slip through our fingers, we'd really regret it."
Ridley died in 2005, but the school - and an anonymous donor who contributed $5 million in Ridley's name - felt compelled to see his vision through, which is why the stadium is named after the former president.
"Father Ridley was very concerned that we needed adequate facilities for our athletic teams, but also that we were rapidly outgrowing our campus," Linnane said. "So this is a good win all around for us. We are a very sports-minded, athletic campus. We feel it's a big part of the education environment in terms of developing leadership and team skills, plus creating in an atmosphere on campus with the appropriate spirit."
Toomey said the new facility has already given Loyola a recruiting advantage it didn't previously have.
"It's going to impact our program, and we've already seen that locally," Toomey said. "Recruits drive up the hill, and you can see their eyes just pop. The scoreboard looks like a mini Camden Yards. I think it really shows a commitment to athletics by the university. We've always talked about it, but now the proof is in the pudding. We just played a game at M&T Bank Stadium, and I can tell you our kids weren't as starry-eyed there as they were the first time they saw our new facility."
For now, the Greyhounds' old field will remain untouched and will still be named after former women's lacrosse coach Diane Geppi-Aikens, who died of cancer in 2003.
"We don't have immediate plans to do anything there yet, but I think eventually the school will find an appropriate way to continue to memorialize Coach Geppi-Aikens and her significant contributions," Linnane said.