In recent years, the Inland Empire of Southern California has made great strides in terms of the sports world. Minor league baseball has become very popular with two noteworthy teams and facilities in the Rancho Cucamonga Qaukes and Inland Empire 66ers of San Bernardino. Minor league hockey would also make its mark on the region as the Ontario Reign, an affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, would bring ice to a region known for year-round warm temperatures.
Seemingly next in line for the region is the growth of Division I basketball. The University of California (UC) Riverside are the candidates to be the face of collegiate sports for the region.
The nickname of the school is the Highlanders, due to the altitude of the region and surrounding mountains near campus.
The Highlanders play at the Student Recreation Center, which looks exactly as the name states upon arrival. One might think it is no more than a student gym before exploring a bit deeper and finding the basketball court. The venue opened in 1994 and seats roughly 3,168 Highlander fans.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The concessions were extremely limited, with only a single stand at the entrance. Luckily, everything was reasonably priced should fans become hungry or thirty.
The food items included hot dog ($2), nachos ($2.50, extra cheese for $0.50), candy ($1 and king candy $2), or chips ($1). The beverage options include Pepsi products, water, and Gatorade ($2).
I must comment that my opportunity to see the Highlanders was on a weeknight late in the season as the team was in the back half of the standings, so my perceptions may be hindered based on the timing of my visit.
Unfortunately the gym itself did not scream gold and blue, and without a lot of signage did not really scream "home of the Highlanders."
A relatively sparse crowd was on hand for the player introductions while the song "Enter Sandman" by Metallica was played. There was nothing of note here aside from the cheer team forming a reception line for the players and standing in the aisles of the seating sections during the national anthem.
During breaks in the action, the PA system played music rather than promos being conducted. The dance team was situated at the north end and the band was not far away. The band members were wearing berets and seemed to be having more fun than most of the crowd.
Unfortunately there was not much atmosphere to comment on as it was a relatively calm experience with the only emotion from the crowd being a "U-C-R" chant while pounding on bleachers.
The area around Riverside is so vast that anyone can find something that they like nearby. Not far from the parking for basketball games is the Getaway Cafe;. Due to its proximity to campus, it's not unusual to spot many students here grabbing a beverage before or after class. Known most for its pizza, burgers, and monster fries, the place also has pool tables and televisions to pass the time before games.
The Cask N Cleaver is another popular nearby location as it was voted as the Best Local Steakhouse by the Inland Empire Magazine. The menu offers sandwiches, steaks, and seafood along with a vast menu of wines. Happy hour occurs every day from the time they open until 8 PM. My favorite item here is the tempura fried avocados with dipping sauce.
Also nearby is a Southern California chain known as Farmer Boys. While hamburgers are their claim to fame, they also serve breakfast, melts, wraps, and shakes. Their side items include zucchini sticks, onion rings, chili cheese fries, and the delectable funnel cake fries.
Not far from campus, fans can find University Village or the Canyon Crest Town Centre. Here, options include Italian, Chinese, Japanese, or Mexican.
The Highlander fans were not much of a factor during the contest and the opposing fans often overpowered them on their home court. It appeared that the band provided 70% of the noise and the cheer team another 20% while the fans themselves were only 10%.
The fan base seemed to consist of mostly students who trickled in throughout the game. They seemed to get more excited about the t-shirt toss than a big play from their team. They did provide some interaction, holding up their hands during a free throwing and yelling "whoosh" after a make. The chants heard from them included "D-D-D Defense" and "U-C-R."
The UC Riverside campus is located off of the 60 freeway, which is often accessed from the 91 freeway. The 91 is known as one of the most congested freeways in Southern California, so if traveling from the west, be sure to leave yourself adequate time to arrive at the Student Recreation Center.
Once parked, an additional five minutes of walking is needed to actually get to the facility. Fans do get a good look at the softball field, track, and tennis courts on their journey to the Highlanders' basketball court. Once the temporary ticket stand can be spotted, fans can be sure that they have arrived.
Once inside the playing area, fans may notice a large area between the player benches and the fans. There are two large sections of seating along the sidelines that go 20 rows high, divided into five smaller sections. All of the seats are bleacher seating, but each seat does have a back rest Through the main doors at the south end, students and the band are seated to the right while the balance of the fans typically find their seating on the left. Opposite the player benches are the media tables and 28 courtside seats
While the gym itself does seem rather simplistic, it has received some upgrades in recent years. Sound enhancing tiles and a new PA system were added in 2003 and the scoreboard looks to be one of the newer ones in the Big West. The scoreboard on the north end has a high definition screen that shows statistic leaders, standings, and more enhanced images. A more traditional scoreboard is above the high definition screen with more traditional scoreboard features. The scoreboard on the south end simply shows the time, score, and fouls.
Each gender has a single restroom that can serve roughly eight patrons at a time. Should the facility be sold out with many fans, this could obviously cause some problems.
As I mentioned previously, this late season game did not create an unforgettable atmosphere. Regardless, it was a chance to see Division I basketball at the low price of $10. If you actually have 29 friends that you could convince to attend a game, you can cut your costs in half as groups of 30 get tickets for $5.
Parking is only $5 for any given game, which might be a bit steep considering the size of the crowd and the availability of space nearby, but it was only $15 in total.
As I mentioned previously, the concessions are reasonably priced, so it's unlikely that fans will spend any more than $20 at any given game. So while the experience is not particularly noteworthy, it's not a huge investment to try it out and enjoy some Division I basketball.
Immediately outside of the playing area was a table where fans could pick up free Highlander buttons and temporary tattoos. While this seems rather insignificant, some of the younger fans seemed to really be enjoying their new "ink."
Also in the lobby was a fundraising effort for a program known as the "Tartan Army." If they make a donation, fans receive a Tartan Army t-shirt and the funds go to the school's athletic programs.
Lastly I enjoyed some of the scenery upon exiting the 91 freeway. There is a bold "Riverside" sign on the bridge near the campus and fans may notice Riverside trolleys driving around campus.
Ultimately this experience seemed to be another Big West school in the infancy stages of becoming a legitimate Division I program. Its an affordable experience and I would love to see the program use this hook to build up an Inland Empire fan base and hopefully bring some attention to the team. Hopefully this leads to more recruits and potentially a new facility that resembles more of a Division I gym/arena down the road.
Follow Drew's journeys through Southern California on twitter @Big10Drew.
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3615 Canyon Crest Dr
Riverside, CA 92507
1333 University Ave
Riverside, CA 92507
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