The strides that UW-Eau Claire athletics have taken over the last few years are numerous. The Blugolds have added and revived several sports, won national championships in multiple sports, and unveiled plans to upgrade their existing facilities.
The next major step may be the biggest of them all.
With Monday’s news that John and Carolyn Sonnentag increased their gift to $70 million for a new event center complex, the Blugolds have been thrust to another level in Division III athletics. The County Materials Complex, which will feature the Sonnentag Event Center and the John and Carolyn Sonnentag Fieldhouse, will be a state-of-the-art facility. And the Blugolds will get to call it home.
“I’ve been an AD in Division I, I’ve been an AD in Division II, and now I’m at Division III. I don’t recall in my tenure at those levels this sense of accomplishment and excitement,” UW-Eau Claire athletic director Dan Schumacher said. “With all these great things that are going on, I’ve never experienced anything close to it.”
The Sonnentag Event Center will be home to the Blugolds men’s and women’s basketball teams. It will seat 5,000 and will mark a long-desired upgrade from the programs’ current home at historic Zorn Arena.
The fieldhouse will contain a 100-yard turf field. The benefits are both obvious and long-reaching. Many of UW-Eau Claire’s athletes will be able to practice and train year-round. The football team will have an indoor space to work on game situations. Baseball and softball teams can practice outside of the confines of a gym. The list goes on.
“John wants the basketball teams back to the glory years and thinks this is going to get us there. I 100% agree,” Schumacher said. “But I also know his investment into making sure we have an indoor practice facility affects every single program.”
The complex will give an obvious boost in recruiting. Division III athletes can not receive athletic scholarships, and having a top-caliber facility will attract attention to Eau Claire from athletes looking to find the best possible spot to pay their way through school.
“That next step into Sonnetag is significant for our program,” women’s basketball coach Tonja Englund said prior to this season. “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.”
Schumacher has seen firsthand the effect that improved facilities can have on a program. When he first arrived at UW-Eau Claire in 2014, the wrestling team has 13 members. The Blugolds wrestled in a windowless room in the basement of the McPhee Center.
Over time, UW-Eau Claire remodeled and improved the accommodations. The growth of the program followed. The Blugolds now have 53 wrestlers in their ranks and produced an individual WIAC champion last season.
“Facilities do matter for attracting enrollment and student-athletes,” Schumacher said. “This facility will attract enrollment even outside of athletics.”
And it will hopefully attract events for the community as well, Schumacher said.
“We’re going to bid on national championships,” he said. “We’re going to bid on the Division III men’s and women’s basketball championships to try to bring that economic development to Eau Claire for a couple years in a row. We’re going to go after the state (high school) events. It just creates great opportunity for the community to showcase the community.”
The Blugolds have also recently announced plans to improve Simpson Field, the current home of its soccer programs and women’s lacrosse team. The wrestling room and gymnastics facility have been upgraded too.
“The momentum is carrying through and I think there’s a high level of excitement,” Schumacher said. “Between the chancellor and Kim Way, the executive director of the (UW-Eau Claire) Foundation, they’ve made athletics a priority and at the same time made sure they live up to the mission of the university. Yesterday was a complete example of excellence in every way.”