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Official Review by Ryan Norris, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
McKeon Pavilion is the home gym of the Saint Mary's Gaels. McKeon is located in Moraga, California, 12 miles east and up a few hills from Oakland. Moraga is beautifully set in a valley surrounded by large redwoods and hiking and biking trails, tucked away from the more urban areas of Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco.
Holding only 3,500 spectators at its capacity, McKeon Pavilion is a very intimate experience. Fans, no matter where their seats, are right on top of the action. The gym, opened in 1978, is mostly outfitted with bleacher style seats, with fans right on top of each other.
Under the tutelage of Randy Bennett since 2001, the Gaels men's basketball team has made the NCAA tournament 3 times (2005, 2008, 2010), including a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2010, a conference regular-season championship (2011), and a conference tournament championship (2010). This success has led to a great following in Contra Costa County and the East Bay and helps to create a great environment in Moraga.
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".
There is one concession stand upstairs and two downstairs to serve patrons. The one upstairs serves only the basics, pretzel ($3), nachos ($4), candy ($2), and bottled sodas ($3). Downstairs you can find a specialty station that offers more unique options. Here you can find pizza by the slice ($5), chicken caesar salad ($5), and a BBQ tri-tip sandwich ($7).
There is not a better college basketball atmosphere in Northern California going right now than a Saint Mary's home game. If California or Stanford continue their resurgence it's possible either of them could supplant the Gaels in this category.
There is very little leg room between benches which can make for an uncomfortable experience at times, but certainly serves to pack 3,500 spectators as close to the court as possible. Fans pack the stands and create a constant buzz throughout the game. The vibe is palpable.
Being almost 35 years old, McKeon Pavilion feels its age. There is no video screen showing replays or advertisements but that furthers the gym-like vibe. There is one small scoreboard at one end of the court and a larger one, complete with stats, at the other.
"Gaelforce", the Saint Mary's student section, stands on the bleachers opposite the team benches. Clad in all red, they keep the energy level high throughout. Though the students are raucous, it's just as likely to see older couples and families with small children at McKeon.
Since Randy Bennett arrived in Moraga there has been an influx of Australian talent (e.g., Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova amongst others) and they now display an Australian flag in the gym. This, and the "Aussie Aussie Aussie" chants are sure to make these players right at home.
McKeon Pavilion is located on the Saint Mary's campus in the town of Moraga. Moraga has a population of less than 20,000 and is a quiet, but beautiful place. Rolling hills and tall redwoods allow for beautiful day hikes in the area.
Being located on campus, though scenic, is not conducive to grabbing food or drink prior to or after a Gaels basketball game. Your best options are in downtown Moraga or Rheem Valley. Here you can find area favorite Loard's Ice Cream, Italian restaurant Amaroma, and Asia Palace (mostly Chinese).
Moraga is a mostly sleepy community where you can enjoy being outside, cruising the farmer's market or catching a movie. You won't find a row of sports bars where you can catch a game on a big screen.
The game I attended was against a non-rival in the Pepperdine Waves. The contest was on a drizzly Thursday night but that didn't turn away many fans; the gym was still 95 percent full. The fans are loud and passionate. They also have a sense of history and are currently enjoying one of their most successful eras to date.
Like many students sections in college basketball, Gaelforce remains standing for the duration of the game. They lead chants that the whole gym gets involved with and are the catalysts for big runs by the hometown team.
The Gaels seem to benefit from playing in a small town, somewhat secluded from the otherwise busy and bustling Bay Area. They are not only the hot ticket in town, but the only. The community seems to embrace them as their own, with many members of the community alumnus of SMC.
There is a perception about the fans being a little uppity at SMC. This may be true but I didn't find it to negatively affect my experience. The fact of the matter is Moraga is a very affluent town.
As mentioned above, Moraga is somewhat secluded from the rest of the Bay Area. The nearest freeways (13 and 24) are more than 5 miles away, accessible only by winding roads, with one lane going each direction.
That doesn't begin to tell the story of getting to McKeon. Though it's only 20 miles away from San Francisco, it can take well over an hour to get to Moraga during rush hour. This is not unique to the Moraga/Lafayette area but certainly affects a trip to see the game. It's not only an issue of getting out of the city as it backs up on the other side of the bay on 580 and 24.
To compare, it only took 20 minutes for me to get to the city after the game, with getting to the freeway the most time consuming part of the trip.
For many Bay Area residents avoiding traffic can be solved by taking a BART train. Unfortunately the nearest station is 5 miles away, so it is not walkable. Riding a bicycle is an option from the train station and would be a nice ride through the rolling hills, but isn't advisable as there aren't many street lights from the station into town.
It's not much easier when you get inside the venue. The bleacher seating in the general admission area left literally no room for people to pass in front of seated spectators. Even standing up to let fans by was tricky as there really was only room for one person to stand at a time. Other seating looked to be more accessible.
Tickets start at $10 for non-rivals and $15 rivals and big games (BYU, Gonzaga, Santa Clara, San Francisco). Parking at McKeon Pavilion is only $5 and food, though limited, won't break the bank. I'd definitely like to be in the gym when the Gaels take on their biggest rival right now, Gonzaga. Watching it on television tells me it's a great time.
There aren't many state-of-the-art extras at McKeon Pavilion. Rather, the extras consist of the historical value, the nostalgic nature of the gym and the atmosphere of this elite mid-major squad. Banners for men's and women's basketball hang opposite the banners for all the teams in the WCC.
The elevated area behind one backboard for some season ticket holders is cool, albeit strange, aesthetic. This area has risers filled with comfy folding chairs and plenty of legroom.
They have typical contests throughout the game including a 3-point shooting contest which, on the night I attended, was won by a young man with use of only one of his arms. Very impressive.
There's something to be said for the manic nature and importance of every game meaning so much. The Gaels know that they must win every chance they get as BYU and Gonzaga will look to capitalize on their faults. The importance of every game is apparent in the feel of the gym.
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1460 Moraga Rd
Moraga, CA 94556
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