Outside the Huddle is profiling which 10 area basketball gyms it feels are the best around as we spend some time this off-season looking at unique aspects of these facilities.
Each facility is rated on four factors – game night atmosphere, design, amenities and team success, as well as testimonials from the home team, the opposition and Bounce himself.
NOTE: While success does play a factor in these rankings, it certainly isn’t the biggest factor. That seemed to be a sticking point in the football field countdown from our readers.
No. 1 The Castle
Location: Norwell High School
First season: 1968-1969
Named for: The regal name follows from The Knights moniker
SCORE BREAKDOWN (1 – lowest; 5 – highest)
Game night atmosphere: 4.5
Opinion or fact, Norwell does as good or better of a job having a top notch environment consistently compared to other schools. The hometown support is significant, whether it is Wednesday or Friday and whether the girls are on the court or the boys are. The bench side bleachers are nearly always packed from top to bottom with fans who have been following Norwell basketball their entire lives and many others who can harken back to the Ossian and Lancaster Central days. They are loud and they are some of the more positive and uplifting hometown fans that you can find in supporting their own team.
The student section is always solid. It is fair to say that some student sections pull off themes better or can be louder but Norwell’s is consistent and has good depth. They don’t zone out mid game, they are always into the action. Call it design or atmosphere, the fact that Norwell leaves space for the opposing students section on the same side of the gym, just a couple dozen feet away from their own certainly adds to any battle of chants and/or heckling. It makes things so much louder on the side of the court that faces the team benches.
The addition to sometimes have the band AND home cheerleaders on the far side baseline increases the noise down there. Norwell is unique in that what is the home bench for the boys is the away bench for the girls. Because of that, having balance in noise in the gym that reverberates nicely anyway, is a major plus. Norwell always has a terrific home court advantage and you can look no further than last season with close, major wins for both the boys and the girls programs.
Norwell is the special kind of gym that can have a lot going on but not feel like it is too much or overwhelming to the senses. The walls are covered with team accomplishments, which we feel like any good gym should and usually does have. The large NORWELL KNIGHTS name across the top of the wall on the entrance side of the gym establishes a bold and bright reminder of the home court. What is particularly unique is that, on the far side of the gym, not only are there banners for the current members of the Northeast 8 Conference but historical banners that are a throwback including the old Ossian and Lancaster Central High Schools that existed before the consolidation that happened in 1967, which was before the current Norwell High School even was open.
The design of Norwell gets better every year. They have been working meticulously on the entire campus with upgrades and this gym has been a big part of that. A brand new floor was rolled out this past season and helped the upgrade. Coming soon will be new LED lights that help that overall dynamic. The semi-recent addition of the portable goals gives the gym an immediate higher appeal. They give the real feel of a professional level of basketball and makes this facility feel like a basketball gym first and foremost when they are rolled out. Not to mention, the quality of Norwell’s portable goals is extremely high.
Norwell’s seating is not incredibly unique in its arrangement, but does have some big appeal. The upper level and lower levels, while separate, don’t feel that way because of the railing separation. The stairwell entrances to the upper level on all four corners allow spacing for little cut outs where media, both print and video/radio can belly up. That type of media area is second best to a school like No. 3 Carroll, who has a whole specific corner for that purpose. Overall, this is a very free flowing gym.
Two of the hallmarks of a great concession stand at a high school sporting event: popcorn and hot dogs. Norwell ranks very high or the best on both. The Norwell concessions are run efficiently and with hot, fresh food. You wouldn’t think that should be an amenity, but if you’ve been to a lot of games, you know that isn’t always a gimme. As mentioned, media specific seating is always a plus; even if some people do it better than Norwell, some don’t do it at all. Speaking of home level hospitality, the hospitality room is great at Norwell when provided, including home cooked crockpot food. Some of these things don’t matter to everyone, but to whom they do matter, they can really matter.
Team success: 4
Norwell basketball teams went 22-0 in The Castle this past season. In that run were wins over the girls champions from the ACAC and NECC and the boys SAC and SAC Tournament champions, all at home. If this success factor was just about last season, there is no doubt that Norwell would take the cake. The two teams lost a combined seven times and it was the only school in the area to produce conference and Sectional titles for both genders with the girls reaching the Regional finals.
In the past 10 seasons, the Norwell boys and girls have combined to win 22 titles between conference (Northeast 8 and Northeast Hoosier Conference), sectional, regional and semi state levels. This number includes 8 Norwell girls basketball Sectional titles. The boys and girls have each won 14 Sectional titles in program history, all with The Castle as their home gym. Girls coach Eric Thornton is the 10th winningest active head girls basketball coach in the state with 366 wins in 23 seasons, all coaching Norwell.
Norwell girls basketball coach Eric Thornton: “We have amazing community support, as both our girls and boys basketball teams draw very well. Our fans are extremely loyal and are a huge part of the winning tradition we have in both programs. Our packed student section provides great energy every night, and, combined with our successful pep band which performs on the opposing team’s baseline, creates a perfect game atmosphere that you just don’t see in many high school gyms. With the recent updates (new floor, portable goals, scoreboard, upcoming LED lights), The Castle is a great place to play or watch a game. As a Norwell coach, you feel very fortunate just to be a small part of it all, because you know it’s not like this at most opposing gyms.”
Norwell boys basketball coach Mike McBride: “Playing a game at Norwell is so exciting. Our new court has a lot of spring in it, and it is really nice with our new graphics. We have a great atmosphere with the fans, the student section and the band. Our student section is incredible, and they are always into the game. They get involved from the starting line ups through the entire game. Our fan base is great and it gets incredibly loud in our gym when our team makes good plays. Our players love the energy our fans provide and we have a true home court advantage. Playing at Norwell is a real community event.”
Bellmont girls basketball coach Andy Heim: “Norwell is a really difficult place to play. From the students to the local faithful, their fans are intense and it brings a college intensity to high school basketball. On top of all that, they have the Norwell factor. Meaning they have years of success which plays a bit of a mind game.”
Let Bounce get some things off his chest to address any social media hate over these rankings and/or the number one spot: there is no better hot spot EVERY GAME than Norwell. This isn’t a boys basketball thing, this isn’t a girls basketball thing, this isn’t a ‘when they are winning’ thing. Norwell basketball’s atmosphere doesn’t waver. When making these rankings, whether it is posted or not, in a way I feel like the order is Design, Amenities, Atmosphere, Success. These aren’t ranking about the best program, not that they may differ much, this is about the best gym. Weighted or not, Norwell leads the way.
This gym has all of the things you need to feel like it is a big game every day of the week or if you are playing volleyball or wrestling in it. It is a big time facility that they are making better year after year with upgrades. It helps that there is a rabid following, a loud following and successful basketball programs. Norwell is tops on our list. Does yours differ? Probably. That is why opinions are so much fun.
Coming Friday: Honorable Mention facilities