High school basketball fans no longer will be turned away from a stuffy, overcrowded gym at North County High School in Glen Burnie. The school's new $5.45 million gym, which opened to students last week, has plenty of room and enables the school to host tournaments and other sporting events.
The 1,600-seat gym is a big improvement over the unair-conditioned one where students have had to practice, play and watch games since North County High opened in 1990 in the former Lindale Middle School. It seated 648 -- not nearly enough for a big match-up or a school with more than 2,000 students.
"We went from rags to riches," said Michael Baker, North County's athletic director.
Baker helped shepherd the project along, from lobbying in front of the school board to spending nearly every day this summer consulting with construction workers.
With the addition of a new turf football field scheduled for completion next fall, the school will have one of the premier athletic complexes in the county, Baker said. Field hockey players received a new field last year with turf-like Bermuda grass that allows the ball and the game to move faster.
In another effort that should boost pride in the school, Baker is seeking to help North County reclaim some of its past.
North County High School was created through the merger of the former Brooklyn Park and Andover high schools. To quell long-standing rivalries from boiling over, school officials promoted the North County Knights and asked former coaches of the two schools to hang on to trophies rather than put them on display at the new school.
Baker, who was the athletic director at Brooklyn Park, is trying to track down those trophies and some memorabilia to put in a new trophy case in the gym's lobby area to commemorate the schools' histories. He had the logos for the Brooklyn Park Bees and Andover Archers painted onto the new gym floor. Alumni who have seen the gym love the added touch, Baker said.
"People come up to me and hug me and say, 'Thank you, Mr. Baker. I feel at home again,'" he said.
Patricia Plitt, who was principal from 2003 to 2005, praised Baker for being sensitive to the two schools' former students. She said she is looking forward to getting a private tour of the gym Tuesday.
"It's going to mean tremendous amounts for school spirit," said Plitt, now principal of Chesapeake High School.
The gym project has been a labor of love for parents and coaches who fought for funding. Tommy Thompson, the school's softball coach, started working on the project in 1998 when he was a member of the Parent Teacher Student Association. He remained passionate about the project even though his youngest daughter graduated in 2002. Funding didn't come through until 2003.
"I don't think we missed a school board meeting," said Thompson, who was president of the athletic booster club from 2001 to 2003.
Original plans for the gym called for an indoor track and a premium sound system, among other features. The extras would have pushed the price to $14 million -- too high for county officials. A series of compromises cut the cost in half.
Thompson still thinks the gym is impressive with its 14 basketball hoops and grooved brickwork, which improves the acoustics. When the bleachers are folded up, visitors can see "Knights" and "NCHS" spelled out in white letters on the maroon seats. The gym has its own lobby and concession stand.
The size of the gym allows more teams to practice simultaneously. That means that students will finish up earlier. In the old gym, some teams didn't get to go home until 9:30 p.m., said Principal Frank Drazan.
Drazan is planning a grand opening sometime before the basketball season starts in November. The event might feature an alumni basketball game.
"I'll probably be crying my eyes out," Thompson said.
Baker, who has taught athletics in the county for 38 years, including 17 years at North County, expects to retire in a year or two. Until then, he is going to enjoy every minute in his new gym.
"I just smile when I come in here," Baker said. "The pride of the community is just swelling."
If you have trophies or memorabilia from Andover or Brooklyn Park high schools, call Michael Baker at 410-222-6970.