A few minutes after the Penns Valley boys’ basketball team had finished off a win last Monday night, the Rams’ Aaron Tobias got a little nostalgic as he looked around the school’s old gymnasium.
“This place has been special,” said the sophomore forward. “I’ve grown up in this gym.”
The small gymnasium, jokingly dubbed the “Ram Dome” years ago, is approaching its final days hosting varsity events. The boys’ basketball team will face Clearfield in the gym on Thursday, and the Lady Rams and wrestling team have already had their last regular-season events. When the District 6 playoff brackets are set, there is a chance the girls’ basketball team could get one more home game, but that will be it.
There will be more practices and events in the months to come, and it will still be used in future years for classes and practices, but the clock is ticking on a varsity home arena with a seating capacity of just 495. With construction still on schedule, a new gym with estimated seating for 1,200 will open its doors for the next school year.
Basketball, wrestling and volleyball matches are just a few of the many events over the years to have graced the hardwood floor. Even charity games of donkey basketball — yes, people riding donkeys on the court (and some donkeys leaving a little something special on the floor) — have drawn fan interest.
Whatever the sport, for a game or practice, it has been the center of Penns Valley athletics since its doors opened in late 1956.
“I’ve been in here my whole life,” Tobias said. “I’ve been working here no matter what sport it was. We play football in here, basketball in here, baseball in here. We’re always in here; we’re always working no matter what we’re doing.”
With his father coaching the football program for better than two decades and his mother a school administrator, Tobias can’t help but have plenty of fond memories.
“I remember walking in here as a toddler,” he said, “looking up at the hoop and wanting to dunk it.”
Of course, some memories of the place may not be quite so fond, like for assistant basketball coach and Penns Valley graduate Rob Sauerwein.
“Right over there I got thrown out,” he said, pointing to the corner near the main entrance. “It was the only game my grandmother ever came to see me play.”
Banners of all sorts trumpeting successes — from league titles to state championships — take up so much space, few of the painted cinder blocks in the walls are visible. If those cinder blocks could talk, there would be so many stories about dramatic last-second wins, record-setting performances and stunning upsets.
“The Ram Dome — my home for my basketball family,” said girls’ coach Karen McCaffrey, in her 23rd season guiding the Lady Rams. “I have spent as much time there as I have at my own house.”
The coaches and athletes know they also have a unique home-court advantage in the gym. There may only be a few rows of bleachers, but the first row is right by the edge of the court and somehow just a few hundred fans can still make the place stunningly loud.
“We will definitely miss the claustrophobic home-court advantage, where our student section routinely has to be reminded by the referees to move off the court,” said Athletic Director Nate Althouse, who coached the boys’ basketball team about 15 years ago. “As a coach, I always loved being able to communicate with the student section, especially when our team needed a push of adrenaline.”
McCaffrey also pointed out the windows can provide some blinding sunlight during the rare afternoon game to add another obstacle for the opposition. There’s also a dead spot on the floor near one sideline, Sauerwein noted, and the Rams will use it to help set up a defensive trap in that area.
Those things may not come into play in wrestling, but the program does its best to put on a show for home meets with a darkened gym and spotlight on the mats for the introductions and bouts. Some visiting teams have even been awed by the show. Althouse said they plan to duplicate the display in the new gym.
Wrestling also has seen its share of crowds over the years that would likely have angered the fire marshal for exceeding capacity.
Darin Hazel has seen the pros and cons of the place from both sides. He was a standout player for the Rams, came back years later to coach the boys team, and also has been the opposing coach for the Bellefonte girls and boys and Bald Eagle Area girls.
“It was very strange being on the opposing bench, but something that never changed was the atmosphere,” Hazel said. “Perhaps the best high school atmosphere in the district. It is so much fun to play and coach in the Ram Dome. Going back in my first game with the Bellefonte girls was a surreal experience. My former boys players (were) in the student section cheering against me.”
The “Ram Dome” moniker came courtesy of a little sarcasm from former State College boys’ basketball coach Mike Fergus, who was guiding a team in a charity game there in the 1990s.
The comment may have been in jest, but the place does provide a link to the past, conjuring up thoughts of the movie “Hoosiers” and Hickory High School in Indiana. Around Centre County, Bald Eagle Area, Bellefonte and St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy have each moved most events into new gyms in the last decade or so, and the home courts for State College and Philipsburg-Osceola are reasonably modern.
As tough as it will be to see games move a few hundred feet over to the new site, the coaches and administrators know it’s necessary.
“A new gym is needed, but (I am) melancholy,” McCaffrey said. “I will miss playing in our old gym.”
Althouse said all of the banners that adorn the walls, and the trophies scattered in the hallways, will be inventoried and likely pared down and simplified, but they will make the move. Where everything will be displayed is still in the planning process, but even as they step into the future, the desire is strong to ensure the school’s athletic history is appreciated.
“It will be important to preserve the history of those who represented Penns Valley in the past,” Althouse said. “I actually think we have the opportunity to be better stewards of our past.”
So many families have taken seats in the old bleachers over the years, sometimes one generation has followed another onto the court of wrestling mat. Having an old gym like Penns Valley’s helps link the past and present more easily, and as nice as the new place may look, some things can’t be duplicated.
“It’s been special for games here for a long time, watching my brothers and everything,” sophomore guard Logan Snyder said. “It’s close, compact and a very special environment for everyone to play in — the Penns Valley Ram Dome.”