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Official Review by Lloyd Brown, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Located 70 miles north of Atlanta is the small town of Dahlonega, home of the first gold rush in America and the University of North Georgia (UNG). The town first became famous when gold was discovered in the area in 1828, drawing more than 15,000 miners to the region. Today Dahlonega-mined gold is still used to coat the roofs of the UNG Administration Building and the Gold Dome of the State Capitol Building in Atlanta.
The University of North Georgia came along many years later, founded in 1873. Today it has an enrollment of more than 17,000 students, with the most popular majors being Biology, Business, Psychology, Criminal Justice, and Marketing. UNG is also designated as the Military College of Georgia, one of only six Senior Military Colleges in the country. It has more than 800 members in its Corps of Cadets. The cadets live in separate housing from the remainder of the student body and are enrolled in an entirely separate curriculum. They are subject to the typical bugle calls found at a military institution; Reveille at 7am, Retreat/To the Colors at 5pm, and Taps at midnight. Instead of the typical campus quad, UNG has a drill field as the central green of its campus.
The University of North Georgia’s athletic teams are members of the Division II Peach Belt Conference (PBC), a non-football conference comprised of schools in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida. UNG’s primary rival is the neighboring Young Harris College Mountain Lions, who are based 65 miles northeast of Dahlonega. The mascot for North Georgia’s sports is the Nighthawk, a bird native to the mountains. The team colors are blue/gold, both as a salute to the military heritage of the school and to Dahlonega’s gold rush history. The baseball program began in 2000, and has a .618 winning percentage entering the 2016 season. They have appeared in six regionals in their short history, with their highest finish being the Southeastern Regional runner up in 2015.
The home nest for the Nighthawks is Bob Stein Stadium. Built in 2008, the stadium takes full advantage of the beautiful mountain scenery surrounding it. The stadium features 500 chairback seats and berm seating on the hills surrounding the field. Since the area is subject to colder and wetter weather than is typically found in Georgia, especially at the beginning of the season, UNG chose to install FieldTurf instead of natural grass. Other special features of the stadium include a major league level padded wall around the entire field; a matrix board to carry information as a part of the scoreboard and newly renovated bathroom and concession facilities.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
One of the most recent additions to Stein Stadium is Coleman Field House. Dedicated in 2014, it includes the restrooms, concession stands, and the UNG Campus Connection Spirit Gear store. The concession stand offers a wide variety of food and beverages at very reasonable prices. These include hot dogs, pretzels, nachos, soft drinks, and candy (all at $2 each). A delicious pork BBQ sandwich and boiled peanuts are $3 each and chips and popcorn are only $1 each.
The concession stand is managed by the same company that runs the bookstore, so Nighthawks spirit gear is also available at the stand. For value and variety, the UNG concession stand earns a perfect score.
It is not surprising that the Nighthawks are usually found at the top of the Peach Belt Conference standings as the school goes about its business in a very professional manner. On a weekend afternoon it is not unusual to find three different sports holding games concurrently within the athletic complex. The staff managing the stadium operations does a terrific job in mixing music, game announcements, and even funny sound effects that are appropriate for certain situations that occur during a game. The scoreboard is quite visible and constantly has messages and statistics running on the matrix portion of the screen.
The bleachers extend from dugout to dugout, which allows the visitors their own area, as opposed to one set of bleachers behind the backstop where everyone is mixed together. Many of the visiting fans I sat near were extremely complimentary of the setting and amenities the stadium offers. Also every seat in the house is a chairback, with a very pleasant amount of legroom and concourses wide enough that there are no navigation problems between innings.
The playing field is completely FieldTurf with the exception of the pitcher's mound. It is visually very appealing, as there are no bare or muddy spots to deal with, even after heavy rain. The players also seem to love playing on it, as you very seldom see a bad hop off the surface.
The UNG athletic department worked with nature, not against it in the placement and design of the field. The UNG campus is surrounded by mountains and Stein Stadium has a beautiful backdrop of hills behind the outfield walls and another hill overlooking the entire field from behind the bleachers. This allows fans some very unique observation points outside the stadium and a beautiful setting for fans inside the complex.
The UNG campus and the town of Dahlonega are inseparable, as the parade grounds of the school and the town square are a mere three blocks apart. While it still maintains a strong military influence in its student body, do not expect to see stark barracks like buildings on the campus. There are many buildings on the campus that date back to the 1800's, but the university also has expanded in recent years and includes more contemporary architecture.
The town of Dahlonega is a tourist mecca throughout the year, but is especially popular during the fall leaf season and during its annual Gold Rush Days festival in October. The town square features numerous restaurants, shops and historic sites linked to the gold rush period.
No visit to Dahlonega would be complete without a meal at the legendary Smith House Restaurant. Located just off the square, it serves meals family style and is especially known for its Southern style cooking.
There are a wide variety of accommodations available, with the Days Inn and the Holiday Inn Express right up the street from Stein Stadium. To really see everything in Dahlonega, you need to set aside a full weekend to explore the area.
Dahlonega and UNG are interlaced geographically, emotionally, and fiscally. The school is a vital part of the community, and in turn the community turns out in force to support the Nighthawks. Typically in a small town setting, the people in the stands consist of family members and friends of the players. The crowds that turn out for Nighthawks games include students, faculty, families with small children, retirees and people who just got off from work and headed over to the park. It is truly a community event.
UNG's status as a senior military college also plays into the esprit de corps you see in the stands. You are just as likely to see a veteran at a game as you are to see several members of the corps of cadets in their uniforms in attendance. When Evening Retreat/Lowering of the Colors occurs during a game, everyone, military or not, comes to their feet to salute the flag.
As you would suspect, the fans at Nighthawks games are fervent in their support of the team, but they are also respectful of the opposing team. There is no trash talking here, and a terrific play, even if it is made by an opposing player, is rewarded by applause from the home crowd.
Though 70 miles north of Atlanta, the University of North Georgia is extremely easy to get to. It is located at the northern end of Highway 400, an expressway that runs from downtown Atlanta through the northern suburbs to its terminus just south of Dahlonega. When the highway ends, simply turn left onto GA 60/US19 and stay on it for seven miles. The UNG campus will be on your left just after the Morrison Moore Parkway intersection. Free parking is available in three locations: 1) the parking lot just beyond the outfield fence, 2) the parking lot across the street from the softball field or 3) park in the large lot above the UNG Soccer Complex. Due to its close proximity to the town center, many fans simply park their cars downtown earlier in the day and walk up West Main Street, which becomes Barlow Road.
Tickets to Nighthawks games are $6 for adults and $4 for UNG students or children ages 7-18. Children under age 7 can attend for free. Parking is free and area hotels fall in the $90 - $100 range, or it is an easy day trip from Atlanta, saving you the lodging expense. The concessions are reasonably priced as well, so a visit to Dahlonega and a UNG baseball game will not break the bank.
As a senior military college, all games at UNG are subject to a temporary stoppage at 5pm. At this time Evening Retreat is sounded marking the lowering of the colors for the day. The game stops and all military personnel stop and salute towards the campus drill field where the main flagpole is located. Civilian fans are requested to stand, take their caps off and place their hand over their hearts during this period. A cannon will fire to mark the end of Evening Retreat and the game will resume. This ceremony is practiced only at the service academies and two other military colleges in the country.
The Gold Rush of 1828 is recognized at a number of locations in Dahlonega. Within easy walking distance of Stein Stadium is the Dahlonega Gold Museum, which is located in the old Lumpkin County Courthouse on the town square. There are also numerous locations where you can still pan for gold.
When it is lunch/dinner time, a stop at the Smith House is mandatory. It is located just off the square and serves a southern style meal you will never forget.
To end your day or a getaway weekend, how about a glass of wine? The Dahlonega is host to five wineries within a fifteen mile radius of the town. Tastings and wine dinners are available nearly every weekend and there are numerous wine related businesses located in the town square.
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1 Public Square N
Dahlonega, GA 30533
835 S Chestatee St
Dahlonega, GA 30533