FORT SMITH -- Stewart Adams says he feels like a kid who cannot wait to rip the bow from the large gift behind the Christmas tree.
Adams, the boys basketball coach at Fort Smith Southside, is one of many Fort Smith high school coaches who are eagerly awaiting the opening of two new arenas at Northside and Southside for the 2021-22 school year.
"It's like Christmas. You are just waiting for the word to open the presents," Adams, also a former player at Southside, said. "In our case, it's when can we move into the arena. When they tell us the day we can move in, I might be there at midnight."
Adams will not be the only coach in the district who feels that way.
After 25 years of watching high schools across Arkansas build arena-style facilities, the Fort Smith School District is finally catching up to the rest of its local, regional and state brethren.
Thanks to a millage increase, both Northside and Southside will be getting new modern facilities for basketball, volleyball and other activities starting this fall.
"When the other schools come in to see what we have done, they are going to go back to their schools and talk to their administration and tell them 'Have you seen what Fort Smith has?'" Fort Smith athletic director Michael Beaumont said. "We want to be the bar that other schools want to reach, and I believe we will accomplish that."
The new arenas were possible thanks to district voters approving a 5.558-mill property tax increase in May 2018 that was used for a $121 million investment in schools within the district. The millage is part of the district's Vision 2023 strategic plan.
The lion's share of the money from the millage increase went to Northside and Southside as both not only added arenas but also increased cafeteria space, built two storm shelters at each high school, added new administration offices, and new construction of ninth-grade centers, making the high schools now for grades 9 through 12.
Northside's arena accounted for $14.5 million of the $37.8 million dedicated for projects at the school while Southside's arena cost $14.1 million of the $45.1 million for the school. Both facilities will have approximately 2,350 seats, which is more than the minimum seating requirements by the Arkansas Activities Association to host state basketball tournaments in Class 6A.
"I never thought we would get these arenas," said Northside boys coach Eric Burnett, who is also a former player at the school. "That's why every opportunity I get to speak to the people of Fort Smith, I thank them for passing the millage. We appreciate them so much."
Connected to both arenas are one of the two storm shelters that will also serve as a second gym for the schools. Add in other gyms still in use at each school, then both will have three gyms to use for boys' and girls' basketball, volleyball and physical education classes.
"What this millage has meant for us is we have a facility that is as good as any (in Class 6A)," Southside volleyball coach and former player Natalie Throneberry said. "Everything is beautiful – the coaches' offices, locker rooms, bathrooms, the playing court, hospitality room and the entrance. We have the space up top (an upper-level concourse) that you can use for a running surface. It's all ... stunning."
Beaumont said he expects Southside's arena ready to be officially handed over to the school in early August. Northside could be ready by the end of August or early September.
To Burnett, just getting other schools to see the progress that has been made has made an impact.
"We had a one-day team camp with teams from Russellville, Har-Ber, Springdale and Alma before the dead period. I told them to turn up 22nd Street so they could see the arena," Burnett said. "They came into (Kaundart) and they all came in saying 'Wow, E. That is going to be nice.'
"In the past, we would go to other places and brag on what they have. It feels good to have other schools brag on us. We want people to come here and talk about us in a positive light."
Thanks to the recent success of Northside boys' basketball, it has reminded fans that Fort Smith is still a basketball town.
Northside boys have won 11 state basketball titles, one of seven schools in the state to have won double-digit state titles. Burnett won state titles in 2107 and 2019.
In recent years, the Grizzlies have produced two Arkansas Razorbacks – Jaylin Williams and Isaiah Joe, who is currently with the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers.
Northside's girls have won eight state titles, all under Rickey Smith, since 1999. Only Fayetteville has won as many basketball titles in the girls' division in the 5-of-5 era since 1979. Jersey Wolfenbarger, who will play at the University of Arkansas this fall, was named Gatorade's state player of the year.
Southside has been a volleyball power, winning eight state titles in the last 25 years.
For the last 25 years, more schools across the state began constructing arena-style facilities, starting with a fellow Sebastian County school 10 miles to the south.
During the 1996-97 school year, Greenwood opened H.B. Stewart Bulldog Arena, which has 2,500 chairback seats and instantly began hosting postseason basketball and volleyball tournaments
In the Fort Smith region, Greenwood, Van Buren (January 2007) and Alma (fall 2007) have all built large facilities that hold more than 2,000 fans for a game and have hosted numerous state tournaments over the last 15 years.
Compare that to the former Southside Gymnasium, which was built in 1963 when the school opened and had just 1,160 seats -- barely half the required minimum capacity o host a state tournament.
"One year, my father-in-law came late to a game at Southside and was turned away at the door," Smith said. "We were playing them for a conference championship. He had to sit in the parking lot and listen to it. We won't have to worry about that anymore."
Though Northside did host the Class AAAA basketball tournament in 1996, Kaundart Fieldhouse, built in 1965, holds 1,800 fans.
By the early 2000s, the AAA had raised the minimum seating standards to 2,200 for Class 6A so Fort Smith schools could not host a state tournament.
Fort Smith schools have hosted state tournaments at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith's Stubblefield Center, built in 2002. They have also hosted both the Coke Classic and the Tournament of Champions.
Both high school gyms had another issue in common – neither one had separate girls' locker rooms. At the time the gyms were built in the early 1960s, neither school had girls' athletics, so it has been a challenge to accommodate girls basketball and volleyball when the girls' programs debuted in the mid-1970s.
"When I played, the girls dressed where they practiced (where the current cafeteria is on the other side of the campus) and walked over here and just played," said Burnett. "What is now a locker room for the girls (at Kaundart) used to be a weight room."
Creating a locker room for the Lady Bears was Smith's idea. One issue, though, was that it did not have a bathroom.
"When I first came here, we converted an old weight room into a locker room, which was right next to the women's restroom," Smith said. "At halftime, we would ask the women in line to let our girls go first so I could talk to them during the halftime break. There are just two stalls for them. It is outdated."
Southside girls coach Robert Brunk said his girls shared the boys' locker room on game nights.
"We have the South Gym (the girls' practice gym south of the main campus) where we had our locker room," Brunk said. "On game nights, we share the locker room with the boys. We would be out playing, and the boys would change. At halftime, we could not go into the locker room until the boys left to come out and shoot. At the end of the game, they come out and we go in."
Though the two arenas will have the same amount of chairback seating, locker rooms, concessions, and bathrooms, they are totally different in design.
From the outside, Northside's arena has the look of an old-school fieldhouse from the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, its exterior design attempts to match the architecture of the main campus, which was built in 1928.
Southside, on the other hand, has a more modern look on the outside, as well as the inside. The new Mavericks arena will also have a state-of-the-art video scoreboard like the FedEx Forum, home of the Memphis Grizzlies.
"The kids are excited about every aspect and detail – the locker rooms, the weight rooms, scoreboards, chairback seating, coaches' offices and so on," Adams said. "The practical features that we didn't have in the old gym make it that much better. For sure, it is a more functional facility. That means as much as the overall presentation."
Beaumont said everyone should be impressed with the new facilities.
"It will be something to marvel at," Beaumont said. "We will have running boards at the press tables and video boards on the corners (of the arena). The locker rooms will have a player lounge area.
"We are going to have kids that will play at the next level and those facilities will be subpar to what they will have at the high schools. They are that nice."
Smith said the schools will also have expanded trophy cases. At Northside, most of the trophy cases inside Kaundart Fieldhouse were for the successes of the boys' program.
"There was no room for our (state championship) trophies, so we had them in the locker room," Smith said. "You got to remember that Gayle Kaundart filled those trophy cases in the front long before Northside had girls' basketball."
Each school will have six locker rooms for the students – three varsity locker rooms and three freshmen locker rooms. Visiting teams will likely use the freshmen locker rooms.
There will be coaches' offices, a locker room for officials, weight rooms, laundry rooms, meeting rooms and a hospitality room. Both arenas will have easy access around the arenas for visiting buses to drop off the teams near their locker rooms.
"Now under one roof, we will have a practice gym, arena floor and a weight room," Smith said. "We've never had all of this in one place. Now we will."
Burnett said all the high school coaches were allowed to have input on the designs.
"I enjoyed going to the (design) meetings," Burnett said. "It seemed like everyone had an open mind and were willing to listen to our ideas on what we wanted. We got to visit other gyms to get ideas. It made it a lot of fun. When they put it all together, we were like 'Wow! This is going to be sweet!'"
A TOUGH YEAR
Last season, the schools not only had to deal with covid-19 issues but also trying to work together to share limited gymnasium space.
While Northside had two gyms, including Kaundart to work in, Southside only had one – the South Gym, that had been used for girls sports. Because it was not big enough to host games, the school had to play volleyball games at Chaffin Junior High and basketball games at Ramsey Junior High.
The Mavericks volleyball team practiced at Chaffin during the season. Still, Southside went unbeaten at home, won a share of the 6A-West title and finished runnerup in the 6A state tournament.
"Not having a gym was one of the most stressful things I have gone through in my volleyball coaching career," Throneberry said. "It was hard to figure out where we would practice, where to play, how to get there, how does transportation work without a bus when you are off campus.
"The good thing was that all of the issues were my issues. The girls just showed up every day to practice or play a match. They handled themselves with such grace. They took it as a badge of honor. For them to go undefeated at Chaffin was amazing."
At Northside, during volleyball season, the boys' and girls' basketball teams basically flipped times to practice. For example, the boys would have Kaundart from 2:30-3:30 p.m. while the girls would have the floor from 3:30-4:30 p.m. That would not always be the best situation for college coaches visiting during recruiting periods.
"A couple of years ago, Kim Mulkey (former Baylor coach now at LSU) was coming in to to recruit Jersey," Smith said. "She told me she was coming in next Wednesday. I said, 'Hold it, that is our rotation day with the boys and I only have the floor from 2:30-3:30 p.m. that day.' She said you are the defending Arkansas state champions, you have two Division I players and you only get the floor from 2:30-3:30 p.m. It was kind of embarrassing.
"These are things behind the scenes that people do not know what we had to go through. Now, we won't have that issue as we will have three regulation courts to practice in – the new arena, the practice gym and Kaundart."
The coaches will have plenty of memories from the old gyms.
Throneberry played on a state champion Southside volleyball squad in the early 2000s. Burnett played at Northside and was the head boys coach at both schools. Smith has a 26-year career mark at Northside of 679-125 along with 18 conference titles. As a player, Adams led Southside to the state finals in 1992 and back-to-back conference titles in 1992-93.
Adams played in one of the biggest crowds ever at Southside when the Rebels (Southside's mascot from 1963-2016) whipped Russellville, led by future Arkansas star and NBA veteran Corliss Williamson in 1992.
"I played a lot of great games in that gym – Russellville being one, playing Northside, the Coke Classic and so on," Adams said. "We have those memories, but we also have eyes forward on the new arena and making new memories for the current and future students who play here. Moving into the new arena is best for the school and the district."
All the coaches feel the same way, though Smith admits he will miss playing a big game at Kaundart Fieldhouse.
"There will be mixed feelings," Smith admitted. "At Kaundart, we have seen the highest of highs and lowest of lows in that place. We won a lot of conference titles playing there. All the hours, hours and hours of practices and camps. There will always be a lot of memories for me in this place."