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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
North Carolina is a state full of historic colleges and universities, with the flagship school, the University of North Carolina, having opened its doors over 225 years ago. Fast forward to the early 1890s, and you'll see that a school called Highland Academy opened its doors. That school of just a couple of handfuls of students later went on to become Lenoir-Rhyne University.
What was Lenoir College, named after Walter Lenoir, who donated the site for the school, then Lenoir-Rhyne College in the early 1920s after a cash and endowment infusion from local businessman Daniel Rhyne, and finally Lenoir-Rhyne University as of nearly ten years ago rests in the western North Carolina town of Hickory. The school fits just over 1,500 undergraduate students onto its campus, located in the downtown area of the city of just greater than 40,000 residents.
Lenoir-Rhyne's athletics programs have enjoyed quite a bit of success in their years, including basketball conference championships that date back as far as the 1932-33 season. That season came nearly a quarter-century before the doors opened to the Bears' current basketball facility, Shuford Memorial Gymnasium. The facility, named in honor of A. Alex Shuford, a local textile magnate who oversaw Hickory Spinners and Shuford Mills in the town, opened in 1956. The Bears' teams have won many games in the facility, as evidenced by the swarm of banners hanging from the rafters, and while there have been a number of updates of late, some of the original mid-fifties character of the building still remains.
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The dining offerings in Shuford are much like the gym itself: understated, but on the level of expectations. A single stand in the lobby (to the right if you use the main entrance, to the left if you use the side doors) offers a selection of main dishes, snacks and beverages to satisfy your hunger pangs.
Chick-fil-A sandwiches ($5) and eight-inch Domino's pizzas (cheese or pepperoni; also $5) top the menu options. Hot dogs ($3) and soft pretzels ($3) also offer a hearty between-meals option. Popcorn is always a staple at games, and LRU has you covered here for $3, as well. Pepsi is your campus bottler -- which stands to reason, as there is a local Pepsi bottling plant across town near the Hickory Crawdads' home yard -- and you can grab a Gatorade, bottled water or soda for just two dollars. Got a dollar? You can get an ice pop, assorted candy or five Blow-Pops lollipops.
A nice touch at Shuford is that all of the proceeds from concessions sales go right back into the athletics programs.
In today's modern era of cavernous arenas and state-of-the-art amenities, Shuford Memorial Gymnasium is a reminder of what collegiate basketball used to be. This sounds as though it would not be so desirable, but it's actually quite the welcome change.
Once you enter the doors to the gym from the lobby, you'll see a familiar look. Seating lines both sides of the floor, with stairs that lead up to a concourse. The concourse separates sections of bleachers; newly-renovated plastic-style bleachers are below the concourse toward the floor, while older, wooden bleachers rise above the concourse. Bleachers are bleachers, and you'll need a seat cushion to get you through two hours, no matter which seat you choose. Also, the upper bleachers are incredibly steep, so make plans for this if the lower seats are all taken. Several fans needed to be helped up the bleachers on the day we attended.
The back walls of the gym are lined with advertisements for local businesses, while an older-style scoreboard hangs to the right of each basket. The scoreboards are not the modern, distracting video-style boards to which fans have become accustomed, but provide the basic level of detail about the action taking place on the floor. Championship banners line the ceiling, celebrating the numerous championship teams fielded by the Bears through the years. Above those banners, you'll find another unusual feature: skylights. The lighting in the gym is a bit dim in places, so the skylights are a nice added feature on sunny North Carolina afternoons.
The atmosphere at Lenoir-Rhyne is largely basketball-centric. The team's cheerleaders perform routines during media timeouts, and there are a couple of shooting contests at the half. This may be a problem for fans expecting pep bands and dizzying video packages, but the friendly people you'll meet as you walk through the stands will make you feel at home, just the same.
Shuford Gym -- and, by extension, Lenoir-Rhyne -- can be found in Hickory's downtown area, and options there are surprisingly limited. This is the older section of the city, and there is very little near the campus at which to find a meal or snack. Regional frozen yogurt chain di'lishi maintains a shop in the Hollar Mill building a couple of blocks from campus, and there is a Subway in the Bears' Lair building across the street.
These options aside, much of Hickory's development is near Interstate 40, which is over two miles from campus. This is, quite obviously, not walkable, so a car is a necessity when visiting Lenoir-Rhyne's campus. National chain restaurants of every stripe are available near the interstate and shopping areas in Hickory. Mellow Mushroom and BurgerFi are two solid options for good food at reasonable prices.
Many of the hotels in Hickory are also located off Lenoir-Rhyne Boulevard (Exit 125 off Interstate 40). Hilton Garden Inn and Courtyard are two good choices for a night's stay in Hickory.
There is an interesting mixture of fans at a Lenoir-Rhyne game. The students come out to cheer on the Bears, to be sure, but there are also many locals who have followed the team for years. The proximity of visiting South Atlantic Conference clubs also makes it possible for fans of Lenoir-Rhyne's opponents to follow the team on the road, as well. This is a nice added touch.
Don't expect a deafening atmosphere at a Lenoir-Rhyne game, but you'll absolutely hear a group of knowledgeable fans who love their Bears, and are always accounted for when the team needs them.
Shuford Gym is ten minutes -- and quite a few stoplights -- away from Interstate 40, which makes for a bit of a tough trek to the LRU campus. Once you get there, though, you will be rewarded with a sizable parking lot to the side and back of the gym that serves all of the school's athletic facilities. Parking is free, and should be more than enough to handle any crowd attending a Lenoir-Rhyne contest. The earlier you arrive, the better, particularly for mid-week games. Once you park, you'll have a short walk to the building, and you will likely pass the school's football facility along the way.
The lobby is somewhat small, but offers plenty of room to maneuver. The school sets up a ticket table in front of the right set of doors into the gym -- be sure to bring cash, as this is the only method of payment -- and a kind employee will stamp your hand as your ticket is taken prior to entry into the gym. If you want to step back into the lobby, there is a nice seating area in which you can relax. The concession stand is also in the lobby, but there is no need to worry about long lines. Everything moves at a quick pace.
There are also restrooms located in the lobby, but be careful when locating them. The men's room is located behind the concession stand toward the side doors, but the women's room is not as easily located. There is a glass door across the hall between the trophy cases that leads back to the athletics offices, and the women's restroom is on the right just before that glass door. The men's room is labeled with a sign hanging on the wall, while the women's room is not similarly signed. The restrooms are, however, clean and well-kept, showing very little of the age one might expect from a building that opened six-plus decades ago.
The other suggestion is to be careful while navigating the seats. The upper bleachers are particularly difficult to climb, and there are no steps or hand rails to assist.
Ticket costs are about what one might expect for Division II sports, particularly on days when the men and women play back-to-back. Tickets are $8 (again, cash-only), and afford you a seat anywhere you choose to watch Lenoir-Rhyne take on teams from one of the better D2 leagues, the South Atlantic Conference. If you buy a ticket, a hot dog and a soda, this will only set you back $13, making this a more than affordable option for taking the family out to see good college basketball.
The lobby is adorned with the leather furniture embossed with the "LR" university logo. This makes for a great place to sit and talk to friends, or just relax. Along with this, there are two large trophy cases that join with the banners inside the gym to tell the story of Lenoir-Rhyne's past athletics successes. For history buffs, this is a great way to spend a few minutes to learn about this university's teams.
There is a seating area outside the gym that is lined with Adirondack chairs, called the Front Porch. This is a comfortable area for students or fans to sit outside and enjoy the quiet of the surrounding area, along with the occasional unseasonable warmth offered during North Carolina's change of seasons.
Statues surround the building, including one of a large bear across the street from the gym. Statues commemorating each of the sports that take place on the campus can also be found near the entrances to the gym, and each is constructed with a striking amount of detail. It's worth a few minutes to just walk around and look at the work put into designing these pieces.
There are numerous Division II institutions around the Carolinas and surrounding states, and Lenoir-Rhyne is one of the most storied schools in this group. Hickory is a great town to visit, and is loaded with friendly, welcoming people. If you're traveling around North Carolina and want to see the school where former Clemson and current Tennessee coach Rick Barnes learned his craft, stop by Lenoir-Rhyne and spend the afternoon -- or longer.
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1854 Catawba Valley Blvd SE
Hickory, NC 28601
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1946 13th Ave Dr SE
Hickory, NC 28602