By Kyle LoJacono
When Tropical Storm Debby rolled through in June it brought flooding to many parts of Pasco County, including inside the gym at Saint Leo University (SLU).
The storm hit when the Lions’ campus was undergoing several construction projects, including changing the way water drains away from the university grounds.
With no place to go, the water forced opened one of the doors to the SLU gym, which caused major damage to the flooring.
SLU athletic communications manager Evan Ortiz said the plan was to redo the gym next summer.
“Debby decided to make that more of a priority,” Ortiz said.
The finished gym was unveiled to the student-athletes and coaches on Aug. 21, the first day of class for the fall semester. The volleyball team got first crack at practicing in the Lions’ new digs.
“As soon as I stepped on the floor I could feel it cushion a little bit,” said SLU volleyball coach Sam Cibrone. “I was here over the summer when they were doing it, so I saw the pads that went in. It was really awesome. After every fifth board they put a string between them, and when they put it together they pulled the string out. It made such a small gap that we would never see with the naked eye, but it allows the floor to move because of the space for that give.”
The men’s basketball team got on the floor later that same night during an unofficial session of pickup games. Senior guard/forward Trent Thomas said the players got to play lightly on the surface before, but Aug. 21 was the first time they were competitive on it.
“Playing on the floor it felt like it gave you a plus one in everything,” said Thomas, who led the Lions with 15.4 points per game last year. “Runningwise, jumping, everything was just a little extra bounce. … There’s a lot of cushion. When you’re running and jumping it’s not bad on your knees at all. It’s like coming down on clay. You’re feet don’t hurt when you land or cut fast. It feels great.”
Thomas said they played for two hours on the new floor.
“At first we’d say this is the last game, and then we kept saying “No, let’s keep playing,’” Thomas said. “I think it was more like we were excited to come back and all play together for the first time. We’re ready for the year. We’ve been ready to get back into it.”
The gym opened in May of 1970 and had undergone only minor renovations during the years. Ortiz said along with the flooring, the project included updates to the air ducts, bleachers and baskets.
Cibrone joined the program eight years ago and said playing on the old floor was more demanding on the player’s bodies.
“It was difficult because the floor was built right on concrete with no padding at all,” Cibrone said. “We had a lot of shin splints and a lot of knees swelling. It was just tough on the body jumping on concrete all the time. This year I’ve seen the floor compressing and the kids aren’t sore. It’s been a total change.”
Cibrone said he’s seen improvement in the team’s vertical jumping. That, along with a reduction in injuries, is a welcome combination by his players.
“They love it,” Cibrone said. “They’re not hurt and in the training room, and it’s creating some excitement around the program right now. … We had a down year the last two seasons after making the NCAA (Division II) National Tournament for four years in a row before that. We’re hoping the new floor and excitement will help bring fans to the game and bring a better atmosphere while helping the performance. I think the floor will make all that difference.”
SLU volleyball starts the season by hosting the University of Charleston and Southwest Baptist on Aug. 31 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., respectively. Lions basketball is finalizing its schedule.