The home of UW-Eau Claire’s basketball programs has undeniable history in its floorboards. But as the legend of Zorn Arena begins to creep toward its conclusion, the Blugolds are excited by the prospect of what lies ahead.
The university is inching ever closer to breaking ground on the Sonnentag Event Center and Field House project. The facility will serve as the new home for the Blugolds men and women’s hoops teams, in addition to a slew of other functions for both the school and the community.
The Eau Claire City Council solidified plans to commit significant government funds to the project this week, painting a clearer picture of the path forward. Work on the arena, which is expected to have capacity of around 5,000, should begin next spring and is scheduled to take two years.
The future is taking shape, and it’s brought energy to the Blugolds basketball programs as they prepare for their upcoming seasons.
“That next step into Sonnetag is significant for our program,” women’s coach Tonja Englund said during a session with the media on Thursday. “The people that I recruit, I’ve got the Farmingtons and the Wayzatas, players on my roster coming from these beautiful (high school) facilities. We need that as a basketball program. We need that as a community, all the things that that’s going to offer. We’re so thankful that the Sonnentags have done this and that we’re moving in that direction. The sooner the better.”
John and Carolyn Sonnentag made an initial donation toward the project seven years ago, and the vision is the clearest it’s ever been. With a blueprint for where more funding will come from, the Blugolds can think about it in earnest.
“I think that’s a very exciting thing, not only for this university but this community,” men’s coach Matt Siverling said. “We’re really looking forward to the day that we can start using that facility. We’re excited about the conversations that are being had and the excitement that’s being built around it.”
The Blugolds have called Zorn Arena home for 70 years. It’s the oldest basketball facility in the WIAC, and still sports the original floor from when it opened its doors. It’s seen its fair share of elite basketball teams, with the Blugold men earning national acclaim under legendary coach Ken Anderson from the 1960s to the 1990s and the women making several deep tournament runs since the facility’s debut.
There’s plenty of history and prestige at Zorn, but it has quirks that the Blugolds have had to navigate around in some areas.
“This is my 22nd year here, and Zorn’s been in my life for 22 years — the good and bad,” Englund said. “There are some great things about this place, but I’ll tell you when I recruit, the kids I recruit are in gyms that are shiny and new at tremendous high schools that have eight courts and 22 baskets. You come into Zorn Arena, and it’s the original floor from 1952 and I have six baskets. So it will help us to take that step.”
In addition to hosting basketball games, the new center — planned for land along Menomonie Street — will be home to a fitness center, UW-Eau Claire’s athletics department and community events.
The Blugolds want to give Zorn a proper sendoff when the time comes — Englund said one of their goals is to host an NCAA tournament game there before they move on — but are pleased with the direction of the future.
“It is a few years down the road, but it’s definitely in the back of our mind,” Siverling said. “We’re definitely excited about it.”