Penn State continues to chase high school, NCAA championships

A sold out crowd of 1,350 cheer on a Bald Eagle Area and Philipsburg-Osceola softball game during the PIAA Class AA semifinals in 2014 at Beard Field. Penn State will continue to pursue the opportunities to host other NCAA and PIAA tournaments.
A sold out crowd of 1,350 cheer on a Bald Eagle Area and Philipsburg-Osceola softball game during the PIAA Class AA semifinals in 2014 at Beard Field. Penn State will continue to pursue the opportunities to host other NCAA and PIAA tournaments. Centre Daily Times, file

For Jen James, recent weeks have been pretty crazy with a lot of lost sleep.

Penn State hosted the men’s volleyball national championships at Rec Hall last week, and will host the Big Ten softball tournament in a few days.

“This has been a drain on a lot of staff,” the assistant athletic director for event management said Saturday night before volleyball’s championship match. “Preparation going on at the exact same time. We are thin in some areas, and the students are leaving so we lose some folks, some good help (this) week.”

When it comes to playing host to major events in sports on campus, James is the party coordinator.

From high school district and state championships to Big Ten tournaments to NCAA regional and national events, there are times James is spinning a lot of plates, and she fully expects the major events to keep coming back to campus, including a desire to bring back PIAA basketball. James said Penn State has put in a bid to bring the state hoops championships back to the Bryce Jordan Center.

“The championships are the icing on the cake for me,” she said. “I love the regular-season stuff, but when we host the championships it’s pretty special.”

Even with graduation ceremonies filling venues around campus — not to mention hotels around the region — Penn State still managed to host the men’s volleyball tournament last week at Rec Hall.

Focus now shifts to Nittany Lion Softball Park at Beard Field for the Big Ten Championships starting Thursday.

They are the most recent events in a long list that continues to grow as the university tries to draw some of the state’s and nation’s top athletes to its facilities.

The bidding process has been open for host sites for PIAA winter sports, and the state’s high school sanctioning organization will decide on the hosts for the 2017-20 events later this month. Penn State will be making a bid to bring back basketball.

The Bryce Jordan Center hosted the state finals from 2007-12, taking them away from Hershey, then losing them to Hershey’s Giant Center in the last bidding cycle. A factor in Penn State losing the basketball finals was a cheaper price tag from Hershey, while Penn State put in a joint bid to host wrestling as well.

“We really wanted to throw our hat in the ring for wrestling,” James said. “We had actually put in kind of a two-for-one package to try to lure them into getting that. We recognize that didn’t work.”

Now, since there are a few dates with conflicts, the university will not chase after wrestling again and just focus on basketball. James recognizes their bid may not be the lowest, but again emphasizes the extras that teams get like a practice gym and better show presentation.

Penn State is not the only site trying to lure basketball, with Pittsburgh’s Peterson Event Center also in the running.

One major difference when the next PIAA tournament comes around again will be the number of teams: The PIAA goes to six classes in football and basketball, among other sports, starting in the next school year. It will spread the hoops games over three days instead of the two in the past to accomodate the 12 games for boys and girls.

If basketball returns to town, it will join the three spring sports the university already hosts. Penn State is in the second year of a four-year deal hosting baseball, softball and boys’ volleyball. In the latter two sports, no one else made a bid.

James is disappointed the university can’t chase after most of the fall sports. With so many events already on campus with Nittany Lion programs, the university can’t block out dates long in advance, especially on weekends that could be drawing football crowds to town.

The one fall sport that could possibly be hosted is football, since those state championships are in mid-December.

“I have not been a part of any conversation about PIAA football,” James said. “I’m not even sure if it’s on anybody’s radar.”

As for NCAA events, the next round of bidding is just gearing up. The NCAA has gone to bidding cycles much like the PIAA, where everything is set in four-year blocks for 83 of the 90 championships. Bidding opens June 6 for events in the 2018-19 through 2021-22 seasons.

“We just started looking at the list that’s available,” James said. “Also we’re looking to see what we’ve hosted before that we know we could easily do, and if there are some interesting new ones that have popped up that we would maybe want to throw our hat in the ring.”

The natural bids they will go after again include men’s volleyball, men’s gymnastics and fencing, and regionals for women’s gymnastics. Fencing nationals, and women’s gymnastics and cross country regionals, are already set for campus in the next two years.

Penn State has hosted gymnastics and fencing multiple times in the past.

One event they cannot chase again that has been hosted in the past — wrestling. The Bryce Jordan Center welcomed the 1999 finals, but the NCAA now says the venue is too small. The minimum capacity for the event is 16,000, and when a stage is added, seating for more than 300 members of the media and some areas are blocked off to accomodate teammates of the 20 wrestlers in the finals, the BJC capacity drops to 13,400.

Penn State also made a joint bid with Pittsburgh for the NCAA women’s volleyball championships in the last four-year cycle, but they lost out. While James has not heard from Pittsburgh about the same scenaro — “I hope they bid again, I hope they ask us again,” she said — others have approached Penn State to get the university’s name attached to a joint bid.

James and her staff are making every effort to land as many championships on campus as possible.

“We want to give everything we can to give our student-athletes the chance to play on their home court, home field, anything,” James said. “We really want to make sure we’re prepared to handle it.”