Home, sweet home

The wrestling team is still trying to figure out how to fit mats into its new room, and the quality of a temporary sound system may have trouble reaching fans in the far corner of the gym.

But to most local sports fans, those question marks will likely be overshadowed this weekend by one resounding truth that echoes from the freshly-buffed maple floors to the red, white and gray tiles that line the locker room showers: $13 million can still buy you one hell of a home.

The newly renovated Mountain Avenue Gym was opened up for basketball and wrestling practice for the first time Wednesday, and the wide-eyed reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Coaches, players and curious Ashlanders alike marveled at the Grizzlies' new home during an unofficial grand opening which preceded the official one by two days. The school will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 5 p.m. Friday during a break in the Ashland Rotary Hoops Classic basketball tournament.

"It's awesome just to be in here and to finally be home again," said Ashland senior Ian Kendall, who took the floor to shoot hoops 30 minutes before the Grizz boys were scheduled to practice. "This whole process has been just so overwhelming — we're happy to be back home. We're really blessed to have this new gym in our program and I'm really happy that all the seniors get to go out with a bang."

The long list of upgrades includes a gorgeous main gym equipped with six baskets and a scoreboard capable of listing names and points scored, a full-sized practice gym with six more baskets, a 4,500-square foot weight room and a new main entrance off Mountain Avenue. There are also rooms for choir and band practice, the latter equipped with the latest in acoustic treatments, a training room alongside the weight room and enough space in the expanded bleachers to seat about 1,500 fans.

"Everybody's like, 'Oh my gosh,'" Ashland boys coach Larry Kellems said of his team's initial reaction when they arrived in the gym to move in some equipment Wednesday afternoon. "It's gorgeous. It's so nice compared to what we've been used to."

From a spectator's perspective, the most striking difference between the new gym and the old one may be less aesthetic and more practical: the lighting is much improved, and that combined with the bright maple finish of the new floor will make watching the Grizzlies a while lot easier on the eyes.

Other nice touches are merely on par with today's standards, but will seem space-aged compared to what fans and students became accustomed to in the old building, which was built in 1953. Bathroom sinks and toilets utilize sensors, the showers in the two main locker rooms are divided into stalls equipped with curtains for privacy, and a passive cooling system will keep the gym's temperature comfortable.

Designers also sought to maintain at least some of the vintage quality of the old gym. To that end, the mural that graces the north entrance was left intact — and even retouched — and the wall that used to be on the outside facing the football field is now an interior wall, separating the weight room from the practice court.

All the upgrades were on full display Wednesday — people trickled in and out of the building throughout the day, poking heads into still vacant rooms and pointing here and there, even as construction workers hurried from one finishing project to the next in preparation for Friday's unveiling.

"I've only seen the gym so far, but after a workout I'm going to go scope the scene," Ashland senior guard Allison Gida said.

The Grizzlies play their first game in the new gym Friday in the fifth-annual Classic, an eight-team event that features a four-team boys' bracket and four-team girls' bracket. The first game on the new gym floor, a girls' game between North Medford and Marshfield, tips off at 1:30 p.m. The Ashland girls host Marshfield at 6 and the Ashland boys host Henely at 7:45.

Both Ashland basketball teams will be looking to gain some momentum heading into Christmas break. The AHS girls are 3-4, but three of their losses were by a combined five points, including an overtime thriller. The AHS boys are also 3-4, but three of those four losses were by three points or less.

"Up until this last Friday, we were averaging about 51 percent from the free throw line, and we cannot do that," said Kellems, whose team will be without its best all-around player, Mason Costantino, who's out four to six weeks with a high ankle sprain. "If we can make some free throws we'll be able to win the close games, but we haven't been able to do that so far."

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