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Official Review by Michael Spatz, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
It’s time for a pop quiz. The record for most college alumni in a single Super Bowl is five. In 2009, five Florida State Seminoles played in Super Bowl XLIII, when the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals. Can you name the first school to have five alumni playing in a single Super Bowl? It was Super Bowl III in 1968 between the New York Jets and Baltimore Colts, and the school with five alumni was a school you might have never heard of: University of Maryland Eastern Shore. UMES was once a force in college football, with five undefeated seasons between 1947 and 1960, but the Hawks shut down their football program after the 1979 season due to the high costs of operating a Division I athletic team. In recent years, many UMES alumni have come together to try to convince the school's athletic department to resurrect the football program. The history of the football program cannot be overlooked. In 1948, UMES became the first Historical Black College and University (HBCU) to play a majority-white institution, Albright College in Pennsylvania. Art Shell, a Hall of Fame offensive tackle and 1968 UMES graduate, is the most notable Hawks athletics alumnus.
Nowadays finding the most success in women’s bowling and women’s volleyball, UMES athletics participate in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), of which the Hawks were a founding member in 1970. After leaving the conference in 1979 because of the football program fallout, the Hawks returned to the MEAC for the 1981 season. The school is currently the only MEAC school not to have a football team. The Hawks do have a basketball team, however, along with the fifth-largest basketball arena in the 13-member MEAC, Hytche Athletic Center. The Hytche Center is named after William P. Hytche Sr., who served as the school’s president from 1975 to 1997. UMES basketball has historically been run-of-the-mill, with just one MEAC Tournament championship and NIT appearance (1974) in the nearly forty seasons of conference basketball. Obviously, performance on the court often reflects the experience a casual fan will have. No matter the success level on the court, a game at Hytche is high entertainment for the kids, though it may leave the older fans wanting a little more.
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".
When you walk into Hytche Athletic Center there's a hallway to the right and a hallway to the left, and the doors to the court straight ahead of you. If you head to the right, you'll get to the one concession stand at the center. The stand only takes cash, but the selection is respectable as long as all you need is a snack as opposed to a full meal. Hot dogs ($2) and Wing Dings ($3) are the entrees while candy ($1.25), chips ($1), gum ($0.25), bottled drinks ($2) and bottled water ($2) are the sides.
The prices are great, with nothing being more than $3. Fans also have a lot of choices. Candy includes Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Sour Patch Kids, M&Ms and Skittles, among many others. Chips come in all different flavors, and the bottled drinks include several different Pepsi products and Brisk teas. Lines could get long, since there's just one stand with two cashiers, but I was satisfied with the food aspect. There is nothing that brings the UMES food experience over the top, but the offerings are definitely enough to be sufficient.
As soon as you walk into the athletic center, you are greeted by a couple of UMES employees sitting behind two folding tables. One of the employees carries the tickets, priced at ten dollars (cash-only), and you may sit anywhere you wish inside the gym. While it was odd to come across a place that didn't even have a standard ticket booth, one set price for any seat in the center does make purchasing tickets easier. I was thrown off, however, by the fact that even admission was cash-only. The employees were very helpful and pleasant on my visit, which was nice to see.
Once you get past the ticket tables, you can truly appreciate the Hytche lobby, which features plaques, portraits and free posters. The plaques are part of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Athletic Hall of Fame, and really make a great impression to anyone who enters the venue. There are also glass cabinets that hold UMES memorabilia, such as a basketball recognizing Tee Trotter, a point guard from the early 2000s that scored over 1,000 career points with the Hawks. With the sun able to come through the glass roof and cast a shadow inside, it really is a nice-looking lobby as you make your way through the doors into the actual gym.
Inside the gym, you'll quickly realize that basketball isn't the only sport it hosts. Track & field and gymnastics events also seem to be held in the gym, as there is a lot of extra room around the actual court with mats and ladders stacked all around. There are even a few racquetball courts inside the gym, and all of this turns out to be both a good and bad thing. The good part was that there was a lot of room to walk around on my visit and I never felt stuck, crowded or pushed either getting to my seat or going back out to the lobby. On the flip side, it does't really make for much of a home-court advantage when crowd noise doesn't echo, and the center looks more like a YMCA gym than the home of Division I basketball.
With that said, there are different ways the Hawks know that they're home. There are two sets of bleachers on either side of the court, and since the tickets let you sit wherever you want, fans obviously pack near the front of the bleachers to get closer to the action. There are three basic scoreboards that you can see no matter where you sit, which display the time left, half, score and team fouls. Several different banners hang from both baselines that recognize the different achievements of the university's athletic programs, such as being 1963 NAIA National Champions in track, going to the 1974 Men's Basketball NIT Tournament, and winning the 2007 MEAC Championship in bowling.
The atmosphere is definitely kid-friendly, though, as any fan is able to see throughout the game. Kids are given lots of free stuff, such as UMES posters, banners and stickers. Every on-court intermission game is for kids, such as the 'Layup, Free Throw and Three-Pointer' duel challenge and the 'Spin Around Ten Times and Make a Layup' game. The Eastern Shore mascot, Harry the Hawk, walks around the gym the entire game and greets kids who approach him. The best part of the Hytche experience for the kids, though, has to be the moonbounce behind the right baseline. Yes, there is literally a huge castle moonbounce in which kids can play during the duration of the game. If I lived around Princess Anne when I was a kid, I would have loved being able to go to the UMES games. Getting free stuff along with being able to play on a moonbounce during the basketball game? What more could a little kid ask for?
For the rest of the fans, though, there are definitely parts of the experience that seem to be missing. There is no trademark chant or song that riles up the fanbase. There is also no student section. For most of the game I attended, the crowd was very quiet and mostly apathetic, even while the visiting team shot free throws. Towards the end of the game, the fans started to catch on that the Hawks could win. Things began to get a lot louder, thanks to some big dunks and big defensive blocks by the Hawks. The PA announcer was enthusiastic the entire game -- which was a good touch -- and played a lot of hip-hop and current rap hits. He obviously made many efforts to try and get the crowd into the action. Some of these efforts worked, but most of them did not.
Interestingly, the visiting Delaware State Hornets had their cheerleaders at the game and cheering the entire game from the right baseline, even performing in the middle of the court twice. This appears to be odd, but it seems to be normal in the MEAC. I had a similar experience at the Delaware State home game I visited earlier in the season. Some fans softly booed the Delaware State cheerleaders when they performed, but most fans didn't seem to mind one way or another
The biggest surprise at the game, though, was that UMES did not have any cheerleaders. The visiting team had about ten cheerleaders at the game and the home team had none. This was one of the strangest occurrences I've ever come across. During most of the second half, the players on the Eastern Shore bench would chant 'DE-FENSE!' when the visiting team had the ball. In a way, the Hawks' bench was the cheer squad. I give kudos to the bench players for having a lot of team spirit while their teammates were battling on the court.
About 11 miles from Salisbury and about 22 miles from the southern tip of Delaware, the best part of Princess Anne, Maryland is probably that it is about 50 minutes from Ocean City, Maryland, the prime beach destination in the area. Besides that, the town of just over 2,300 residents is somewhat lacking. The UMES campus is the only university in the town and really the only structure of note.
The best place to eat would probably be Beach to Bay Seafood Company on Carole Lane. If you're going to come this close to the Atlantic Ocean, you might as well have some delights like crab cakes, tuna steaks, oyster sandwiches and bay fries. Another hot spot to go to if you're hungry is Peaky's Restaurant on Mt. Vernon Road. Peaky's also serves seafood, as you may imagine. All in all, however, a Hawks game would likely be your main reason for visiting Princess Anne.
Bringing in a big fan base when you're a struggling franchise or school is always difficult, and it's even harder when you're a very small university. To UMES' credit, a lot is done to make the game family- friendly, and the fan base does respond by bringing their young kids. The majority of the fans seem to be either alumni, current students or kids. Still, filling up Hytche seems to be out of the question at this point for the Hawks, as the game I went to was filled just under 40% capacity. To be fair, though, the game was during the last weekend of winter break, so most students were likely still at home.
The fans that were at the game took a while to warm up to the action. In the first half, fans seemed more content talking with their friends than watching the actual game and cheering on the home team. In the second half, though, the Hawks nursed a small lead, and the fans seemed to wake up and get into the game. They cheered at every converted opportunity and expressed their disappointment when the team was unable to capitalize. Most fans stuck around for the whole game and were thrilled when the final buzzer sounded, giving the Hawks a win against a conference rival.
Still, it's hard for a fan base to get truly involved when there are no cheerleaders or student section. Harry the Hawk can't really do much either, since he or she is in a mascot costume. For kids that are coming to Hytche Athletic Center for the first time, there's a lot to do and they'll likely ask if they can come back soon. For the older fans, though, you really have to like the actual game of basketball, because there's not much else to do or see as far as entertainment in the athletic center.
The drive to Princess Anne is rather simple. Coming from Baltimore, Washington DC or Virginia, you have to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge before taking Route 50 East towards Ocean City/Salisbury. The longest stretch is 65 miles on US-13 South, and a trip from Baltimore will total around two and a half hours or so. From the Philadelphia area, a trip to UMES is around 150 miles; taking about three hours. For that drive, follow Route 95 South down to Route 13 South through Salisbury. The trip from Baltimore isn't very eventful, besides passing through the occasional towns like Easton, Cambridge and Salisbury. There aren't too many signs for Princess Anne or UMES, but as long as you stick to directions, you can't miss the campus.
Once my friend and I arrived on the UMES campus we had a bit of trouble finding the Hytche Athletic Center. The center's structure doesn't really stand out. Once we located the center, we noticed a parking lot right behind it. Parking is free and the lot is very convenient, but it was completely full when we arrived about fifteen or twenty minutes before tipoff. There are two other parking lots that are free and require about a five or ten minute walk down the street. Overall, though, the parking was convenient on my trip, and there was no problem with traffic when we left the venue. Bathrooms are standard and located in the lobby hallway.
A trip to see the Hawks is very cost-effective. The Bay Bridge is likely the only toll you'll pass through ($4 going there, free coming back). Parking is free, and food is very reasonably priced. Unfortunately, there is no team store or anywhere that sells merchandise at the center. There are a number of free items, like schedule posters, as well as stickers and banners for the kids. The universal $10 ticket price is nice, as long as you can get your preferred seat. If you want season tickets, $125 will get you season tickets to every men's and women's Hawks hoops home game (23 games in total). All in all, the ticket price is reasonable for a small-town team that's fighting to be competitive. It's Division I basketball, and you're close to the action no matter where you sit.
One super extra point goes to the moonbounce that is behind the right baseline, open to all kids. I don't know if I will ever see something like that again, but it definitely seemed to be a hit, as there were kids in and around it throughout the game. A second extra point goes to the UMES staff that is polite and helpful, especially at the ticket table in the front of the center.
When you put it all together, a day at Hytche Athletic Center has its perks and offers a unique experience, especially for the kids. There's a lot of room to improve overall, especially in entertainment and atmosphere. If the Hawks start bringing more wins to Hytche, expect to see more fans coming out, creating an improved atmosphere.
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12138 Carole Ln
Princess Anne, MD 21853
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