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Official Review by Tyler Green, Stadium Journey Guest Correspondent
Tucked quietly away in the foothills of the Daniel Boone National Forest, Morehead State University is a rustic locale that provides some exciting basketball during the winter months. Johnson Arena is the 6,500 seat home to the MSU Eagles, a respectable program coming out of the Ohio Valley Conference. Constructed in 1981, the venue has elements of both a modern and classic college basketball home. Steep, high sideline bench seats suggest a historic field house, but modern video boards on both baseline walls keep the spectators informed with scores, stats, and replays.
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The concessions at Johnson Arena are very affordable with standard selections. Hot dogs and chili dogs are available for $2 and $2.50, respectively, and a BBQ sandwich can be purchased for $3. Three-dollar nachos are also options, as well as a two-dollar pretzel or slice of pizza. One of the best choices compared to other sports venues is the drinks, where either a fountain drink or bottled water is just $2. No local favorites are available to enhance the mountain atmosphere, but the reasonable prices almost make up for the limited choices.
The Morehead State cheerleaders and dance team do their part in keeping the crowd involved in the game, but several features are missing from a classic college basketball atmosphere. Aside from the percussive noises created on the cheerleader’s megaphones, no live music is provided to keep the crowd active. However, the coziness of the arena allows the cheerleaders to have effective contributions. The crowd has a tendency to slump into silence to accompany an opponent lead or a stagnant defensive possession, but a few made Eagle baskets can quickly bring the crowd to life.
The timeout atmosphere severely misses a university pep band and a fan cam, which can keep fans dancing and laughing until play resumes. Timeout entertainment did include recognition of the OVC champion Morehead State volleyball team, and on one occasion, the cheerleaders, dance team, mascot, and kids in attendance came on the floor to ignite the crowd with a lively rendition of the chicken dance.
Johnson Arena is situated on the east end of the Morehead State campus. This puts it next to Jayne Stadium, the 10,000 seat home of the Eagles’ football squad and a good amount of apparent upperclassmen housing. Being a decent-sized small town with just under 8,000 people and the interstate traffic three miles away slightly make up for the lack of restaurants immediately around the arena. The thru-traffic and town provide ample fast food, such as Dairy Queen and Wendy’s, and an interstate-staple Cracker Barrel is also present. As far as local sports bars or pubs, there are no obvious destinations. The town’s size suggests a limited night life to support this absence, and the sports venues’ size suggests a negligible amount of pre- or post-game bar hopping.
A few games on Morehead State’s annual schedule, such as rivals Eastern Kentucky or Murray State, draw good-sized crowds, but an average weeknight OVC game leaves plenty of openings in the 6,500 seat venue. The entire upper arena was roped off during this visit, but the lower bowl was comfortably full. Nevertheless, there is good student and local representation, both of which are actively involved in cheering on the Eagles and the fans’ tight proximity to the court make this an effective home-court advantage. The fans are also not shy at letting the officials hear about their disagreements with their calls.
The university is situated in a skinny valley in the Appalachian Mountains just three miles off Interstate 64. It is a quick 65-mile trip from nearby Lexington, and can easily be completed in time for an evening or a weekend game. There is a good-sized parking lot immediately adjacent to Johnson Arena and ample side roads for overflow parking during rivalry games.
The exterior of Johnson Arena has adequate wheelchair ramps, but this feature is lacking on the interior. The surface of the playing court can be reached by ramp, but the lower and upper seating areas require the use of steps. Exceptions are made as a few seats can be arranged courtside for those in wheelchairs. The central lower bowl seats are fold-down with seat backs for the season ticket holders and early arrivals. The end zones and upper arena seats are wooden benches, as expected in a collegiate venue.
Tickets for a Morehead State game are available at a walk-up price of $7. The parking lot next to Johnson Arena charges $5 a vehicle. The reasonable prices of concessions also make lunch or dinner before the game an affordable option. The atmosphere is good for a mid-major program and provides reasonable entertainment for the price and athleticism on display.
One bonus point for the charming valley location. The university is located through a three-mile pass away from the interstate, so the actual valley containing the town is separated from the big city outlet and interstate buzz. Driving in around dusk produced mental images seen in films set in quiet 1960s towns and was one of the highlights of the trip.
One bonus point for the OVC connection, which has a history of producing respectable NCAA tournament teams. The Eagles upset Louisville in the first round of the 2011 NCAA tournament in their 7th appearance. Often forgotten about in the regular season, the OVC champion regularly makes its presence felt in the post-season tournament.
**Tyler Green is the founder of Stadium Fanatic.
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