By Trey Williams
Gentry Stadium is all dressed up with potentially nowhere to go in 2020.
A $3.2 million renovation is nearly finished, and should be ready for the Unicoi County football team’s season opener – assuming there is a season to open. The coronavirus pandemic could obviously still delay the venue’s kickoff.
“It just makes you want to have a season even more,” Blue Devils coach Drew Rice said Sunday. “I won’t call it bittersweet, but the thing that makes it even more worrisome about the uncertainty of the season – it’s like you’ve got this huge carrot kind of dangling here and we don’t know if we’re going to get to use it. That part of it’s been kind of nerve-racking for everybody.”
The overhaul included new and expanded seating, a new press box with rooftop crow’s nest, new lights, a concession stand, fencing and paving. Aluminum seating has replaced sections of wooden and concrete bleachers, and blue chair-back seating adorns the upper portion of the middle two sections.
“It’s night-and-day different,” Rice said. “The stands – when you come up here and pull in, that’s the thing that obviously kind of really stands out to you. They now go goal line to goal line. Our stands were always big, but these are a little wider, a little higher and they’re all aluminum. And then we’ve got the chair-back section in the center. It’s just awesome.”
Community response has been significant.
“Honestly, I couldn’t put a number on how many people that I’ve either run into or they’ve called me or texted or whatever, just going on and on about how nice it is,” Rice said. “It’s something to really be proud of. I’m more than happy about it, and I’m happy for our community and our kids. Even guys I played with and the guys that played long before me going all the way back to people that have a lot of connection to this program and a connection to this stadium, just seeing all the different people that it’s affected and how excited everybody is about it, it’s just awesome.”
Former Blue Devil Clark Duncan, a starting safety for Johnny Majors at Tennessee and now the coach at South-Doyle, was impressed when he visited his old stomping grounds this summer.
“I am so happy to see the renovations being done to Gentry Stadium,” Duncan said. “I know it’s an exciting time for Coach Rice and his program as well as the community. Gentry Stadium holds so many great memories for me, dating back to the mid-70s.
“I had the opportunity to stop by a few weeks ago and reminisce on some great moments in my life. I was so impressed with how great the stadium looks, without losing the character of the old stadium.”
Seating capacity has been increased from 2,400 to 3,000 (approximate), according to Rice, who said the stadium’s concrete section of seating was poured as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ambitious Works Progress Administration in the mid-1930s. The lighting seemed to have come from the same era.
“The lights have made a huge difference,” Rice said. “I don’t think people realized how dark it was just because we were all used to it. You’ve got the LED lights, and it’s just amazing how bright they are and how everything lights up up here. It makes it that much nicer.”
The project is being funded, along with others in the school system, via an annual debt service the school system is presently paying on a 20-year note used to build Unicoi County High School. It’s set to be paid off next year.
“They didn’t have to raise taxes,” Rice said. “Thanks to the county commission, obviously, for going for it, and (director of schools) Mr. (John) English, of course, and our school board. Those are the people that allowed it to happen. We’re very, very thankful to those people to want to invest and give the community something to be proud of.
“It’ll be here a long time after we are. I think it’s a lasting investment.”
Rice hasn’t questioned his previous teams’ work ethic. The Blue Devils have won 15 games during the past two seasons, including back-to-back 4-1 records in the region. But the stadium seems to have injected extra pep in the step of players these days.
“Ever since we’ve started back,” Rice said, “even in the small groups we were doing in June, the kids have just been super-eager to work and show up every day they’re supposed to with a smile on their face ready to work. That’s been really cool, and I’m sure that (stadium) has helped.
“And I think it’s helped probably get some people. We’ve got 23 freshmen out. We normally shoot for 15 in every class. … I don’t know if that’s kids wanting to play in a new stadium or what, but the eighth grade had a really good year last year and we’re excited about that.”
The Blue Devils are tentatively set to open the season at home on Aug. 21 against South Greene.
“We’re carrying on like that’s the plan,” Rice said. “We all know that could change; that could change by the time this gets printed Wednesday. But that’s the plan. That’s how we’re preparing.”