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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
As another toasty South Carolina summer draws to a close, Labor Day approaches and the tourists leave the coast, hearts and minds in the Palmetto State prepare for football. Grills will soon fire, wonderful scents will fill the air and fans will don their school colors to cheer like crazy for their home school. It almost seems a rite of passage for those in the land of the palmetto and crescent.
The same happens at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, nestled between the roaring crowds in Columbia and the hustle and bustle of Charlotte. The difference for Eagle fans, however, is that their football is played on a pitch. It's played extremely well, too, as evidenced by the Eagles' numerous Big South Conference championships and College Cup appearances. In any given year, stars from nearby in the Carolinas -- and as far away as Germany, Spain, Iceland, Canada, Australia, England, Ireland, Slovenia and Brazil -- don the garnet and gold in their quest to hang yet another banner on the fence surrounding the pitch at Eagle Field.
Though Winthrop may not have the type of football to which many locals are accustomed -- though the conversation of how, when and if to bring it to campus is seemingly never-ending -- fans of the Beautiful Game owe it to themselves to stop by and see a match played at one of the highest levels of collegiate soccer.
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".
Winthrop offers all the expected items to satisfy your hunger at their concession stand located behind the main seating area. Sodas (Coke products; $2 for medium, $3 for large), Powerade ($3), bottled water ($3) and coffee or cocoa ($2) provide the liquid refreshment.
Meanwhile, hot dogs ($3), chili dogs ($4), pizza slices ($3) and nachos ($4) are the "entree"-type offerings. Chips ($2), candy ($2), Super Pretzels ($3) and popcorn ($3) are the snacks.
This may not be a feast fit for a king, but you will not go hungry, by any means.
Eagle Field is part of a greater athletic complex at Winthrop, which includes Terry Field (softball), The Winthrop Ballpark (baseball), Irwin Belk Track, Memorial Courts (tennis) and the Winthrop Coliseum (basketball, volleyball, et al). This complex is about a mile away from the campus proper along Cherry Road (SC 322), and though fans are not afforded a view of academic buildings, there is quite a bit to see beyond the goals. There are walking trails, open grassy areas for frisbee tossing (or whatever your preferred use) and a pond off in the distance, along with the aforementioned athletic facilities.
Fans enter the facility through one main gate in the corner of the facility, on the same end as -- but opposite of -- the scoreboard. This gate is near the parking area, which makes entry and exit relatively easy. It can get a bit crowded near the gate, at times (more on this later). This gate feeds onto the primary concourse that leads fans to the large seating area just ahead. The center of this seating area contains fixed reserved seats, surrounded on either side by bleacher seating. The bleachers are, well, bleachers, so it may be beneficial to bring some sort of stadium seat. You can alternately bring a blanket or chair and sit on the small hill behind the goal. This was a popular option on the day I visited, as fans gathered with friends and their pets -- a cool touch -- to watch the match.
The sun can get a little rough as it sets for evening games in this seating arrangement, so you may find it preferable to sit in the bleacher seating across the pitch. There is a set of bleachers behind each dugout. These are also good seats, but the presence of the press box may make it difficult to see some touches in the opposing corner, as well as the scoreboard.
The most important takeaway is that, as long as you try to stay in the area that allows you to see your preferred view of the action, Eagle Field affords a pretty comfortable place to watch high-level soccer.
The neighborhood surrounding Winthrop continues to grow. So, too, does the Manchester area just one exit south of the complex on South Carolina Interstate 77. A number of choices exist near the athletic complex, with fast-food choices galore joining a few dine-in establishments within a short distance of the athletic area. If you would prefer to do a little shopping along with going to a game, Manchester Village offers several big-box stores, a modest mall and dining options of nearly every stripe. A movie theater and Mellow Mushroom pizzeria are also part of the offerings on Dave Lyle Boulevard just off the interstate. This is a continually-developing area, so you may find additional options each time you visit.
Maryland-based chain Ledo Pizza also operates a store in Rock Hill, approximately five-to-seven minutes from the complex. Ledo is a strong supporter of Winthrop athletics, occasionally offering discounts for students and fans in Winthrop gear.
Charlotte is about a half-hour northeast along Interstate 77, if your search for a fun night out leads you to something and somewhere different. There is enough to do in Rock Hill to keep this trip from being a necessity, however.
Winthrop soccer fans are about what one would expect at any major university. They showed up early on the day I attended and, for the most part, stayed until the very end of the match. The match ended on a golden goal in the 109th minute, and though it did not go the way of the home side, those in the stands largely stayed around to support the players and the university. There is the standard crescendo as the home side advances on net, and the requisite complaining to the officials whenever a call does not go the way of Winthrop's eleven. There are many schools that play soccer in the region that do not have a very large following, so the fan turnout for the Eagles is nice to see.
Though the match action is mostly fast-paced, there is a lot of socializing and checking of phones at Winthrop matches. This is, unfortunately, quite common at collegiate events. This is far more the exception than the rule, though.
This is the lone area where Eagle Field faces real challenges, and it's not really a matter of "fault" for anyone. The pitch is in the back portion of the athletic complex, and getting there requires the navigation of a somewhat narrow road by the baseball stadium and around the lake. There are signs pointing to the soccer complex, but this is an unnecessarily complicated maneuver.
Once you reach Eagle Field, parking is a chore. There is a small lot just by the entrance to the pitch, which is usually occupied by the visiting team's bus and the few cars for which it has the capacity. A narrow gravel and grass lane is next to this lot, and limited parking is available there. Be careful if you drive a low-profile vehicle, as this can cause some issues.
If you don't mind a little extra walk, there is plenty of parking near Terry Field, the softball facility. The complex is honestly nice enough that the extra walk is no real issue. You can also occasionally catch ducks or other wildlife congregating around the water.
There is plenty of room to maneuver throughout the complex, as the sidewalks and grassy areas behind the goals offer wide berths for walking. The only issue with the organization of the complex is the lone gate for entry, as players, parents and fans tend to congregate near the gate after the game. This can make exiting the facility a bit tough.
Restrooms are along the main walkway adjacent to the entry gate, and are ample and clean enough for any event played at Eagle Field.
Winthrop doesn't offer "American" football, but Winthrop soccer is a great way to spend a couple of hours on the cheap. General admission seats are just $5, and you can bring in your four-legged friend to enjoy the weather and some collegiate soccer. Winthrop consistently fields a competitive side, so your return will be maximized.
Considering a game ticket, drink and hot dog can be had for $10, it's tough to argue with the price.
The fact that fans can bring in their furry friends and get some hang time with their pets is a wonderful plus. I'm an animal lover myself, and fellow "pet parents" getting to enjoy some time with their buddies is pretty priceless.
Winthrop is a successful program, and that success is honored everywhere around the pitch. Signs commemorating the Eagles' conference championships and College Cup appearances hang from the fence, while stand-up banners line the entryway. These reminders are a great source of pride for long-time Eagle soccer fans, and a nice introduction for those unfamiliar with the program.
Winthrop does not bring a band to a soccer match -- which is to be expected -- but fans still get a small taste of that atmosphere after every Eagle goal. The Winthrop fight song blares from the speakers atop the scoreboard as the players celebrate the score.
Finally, one of the cooler touches of Eagle Field is on the left, just as you walk in. There is a statue of a soccer player in a bicycle kick pose. The piece is nicely done, first and foremost, but also lends a sense of setting to the facility.
Whether you are a soccer aficionado or just a newbie to the sport, Winthrop soccer is a fun way to spend an evening. You will be greeted with nice people, talented athletes and a comfortable atmosphere. If your travels lead you to Rock Hill, give Eagle Field a spin.
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