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New era for Stevenson starts Saturday with first home football game

When the lights go up on Owings Mills Boulevard Saturday night, a new era will dawn for Stevenson University. A capacity crowd of 3,500 is expected to pack the school's new $9 million stadium, built on the site of the former Ravens and Colts training facility.

A 75-piece marching band will take to the state-of-the-art field turf to blare out the school's newly minted fight song, with images beamed live to cable TV viewers throughout the region. And referees will break out special footballs emblazoned with the Stevenson logo and the words "Stadium Opening 2011."

The enormity of the moment won't be lost on administrators of the one-time commuter school, known until 2008 as Villa Julie College.

"It will make a big, big difference for us in terms of our visibility," school president Dr. Kevin Manning said. "We've seen a tremendous amount of campus spirit and community excitement since the football team was announced."

Since that day in 2009, Manning said enrollment has increased by 500 full-time students, to about 3,200, and the school's male population has increased from 25 percent to more than 40 percent.

The prospect of football also has been a financial boon to the Div. III program, according to athletic director Brett Adams. At an average tuition of about $35,000 a year, he said, the approximately 100 players generate $3.5 million for the university, before ticket and merchandise sales.

The football team, which doesn't offer athletic scholarships, costs $570,000 a year to operate, he said.

"So there's $3 million of disposable income that can do a lot of things besides athletics, like new transportation and additional dorms," Adams said.

The money also is being used to launch a new women's ice hockey team, which Adams said will be the Southern-most program in Div. I, II or III when it begins play in late 2012.

The showpiece, however, is the stadium, which lacrosse coach Paul Cantabene said already has given a major boost to recruiting.

"Before we kind of did it with smoke and mirrors," said Cantabene, also the associate athletic director for facilities. "We used to lose [recruits] because of our outdoor facility. Now that we have a better one, I think it gives us a great in. We're able to offer a Div. I experience at the Div. III level."

The dream began in earnest in 2005, when the fast-growing school purchased the vacant facility from the city for $4.55 million. (Stevenson is honoring the former tenants by mounting a 15-by-20 foot framed Ravens logo, cut from the front of the old practice bubble, on the stadium's concourse level.)

Adams then brought in Ed Hottle, who had previously rebuilt the football program at Gallaudet, as a consultant, and later hired him as head coach. The team used 2010 as a developmental season.

Picked to finish last in the nine-team Middle-Atlantic Conference (MAC) in a preseason poll of coaches, the Mustangs officially launched play last weekend with a 49-21 loss at Shenandoah.

Following more than a year of practice, the result was a bit of a wake-up call heading into Saturday's home opener against Christopher Newport.

"We had a developmental season, but nothing is quite like playing varsity football, from a speed perspective and an intensity perspective," Hottle said. "Everything we do is new to our guys."

That fact is doing little to quell the enthusiasm on campus. Earlier this week, the school began distributing 1,000 free tickets to students, and was immediately flooded with requests.

Adams said less than 500 tickets remain available to the general public for this season's five home games.

"All the kids on campus are talking about this game," said junior quarterback C.J. Hopson, a transfer from Bucknell. "For us as players, there's a lot of distractions. We're just working on staying focused and trying to get ready for the game the best we can."

Hottle has asked his players to block out the pomp and circumstance, and focus on the task at hand. After all, they'll only get one chance to play the first home game in school history.

"We've got to be ready to go. All the other stuff, that's for the fans," Hottle said. "Maybe we'll look back in 20 years and say 'Wow, I wish I had taken a little more time to enjoy the moment.' But our job is to win football games."

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