Athens Drive colored blue its christening of Jaguar Stadium.
Blue, as in adults and students decked out in school colors among fans that nearly filled the 3,000 seats. They gathered early and observed the band marching and playing on the fresh blanket of green turf at the long-awaited on-campus facility.
Blue, as in balloons cheerleaders released to the sky once an orange ribbon that stretched between the two 40-yard lines on the home side was cut at 50.
Blue, as in the players dressed head-to-toe in helmets, jerseys and pants. They huddled in the north end zone awaiting the moment to burst through a poster painted to celebrate the day.
Yes, there also was some blue from losing the inaugural game to Cardinal Gibbons, 49-27. But new head coach Jeremy Fulbright is confident that cloud can be lifted.
He cited early mistakes on defense from a young roster that can be cleaned up. More so he was encouraged by stronger second-half play. The players say the newfound school spirit energized them. That feeling lingered longer than the loss.
“I never played in a game with that many people,” said Xzavier McNeil, a senior wide receiver/defensive back. “We were down (35-8) in the first half, but the second half we came out and everybody was still cheering and believing in us. Everything from a first down to a 2-yard gain, we were hearing ‘Go Jaguars!’ That helped us come back and get it down to 14 points (35-21) in the second half.”
The new stadium was built on a wide expanse that served as the practice field separating the school and the baseball field.
“The place is state of art, and the kids have a lot of pride in it,” Athens Drive athletic director Travis Seese said. “We’re not even in school yet and the stands were packed. It was much different from what we had in the past.”
It replaced Williams Stadium, which was used since the school opened in 1979. That facility was a half-mile from the campus on land owned by the City of Raleigh. The old facility had safety problems with no weather shelter from rain or lightning and limited handicap access, among other detriments.
But even in good weather, the separation from campus dampened school spirit and crowds. After a loss, the players felt alone as they boarded a bus. The only thing worse was trudging the half-mile by foot.
“Those were long bus rides,” senior middle linebacker Khalil Khatib said.
Jaguar Stadium was appreciated by more than just this year’s team. Senior defensive end Gabe Brew and wide receiver Sam Enders noted the former players that turned out for the game among the alumni in general.
Overlooking the field was a new press box with plenty of seating for game operation and booths for visiting and home assistant coaches. The Williams Stadium press box resembled a tree house with a spiral staircase.
The back side of the new press box faced right field of the Jaguars’ baseball field. If it had been in place when Athens Drive’s Josh Hamilton of Major League Baseball fame was stroking home runs for the Jaguars in the late 1990s, there might be some markers on the press box wall commemorating his 400-foot home runs.
Those moments have passed into the mist of history. But Athens Drive can build on-campus lore from this point forward.