Austin Peay announced Wednesday its plan to reconfigure its indoor tennis center into an indoor practice facility that will provide more than 26,000 square feet of space for a variety of Governors athletes.
But the change has been met with opposition by many in the Clarksville community who worry about the sport’s future in the city.
The restructured facility will include field turf similar to the football surface at Fortera Stadium and will be only the fourth all-sport indoor practice facility in the OVC, joining Eastern Illinois, Tennessee Tech and Tennessee State.
The facility’s primary users will be the baseball, softball, football, and track and field programs.
“When we started this journey at Austin Peay, it was our goal to look for transformative opportunities to improve the student athlete experience and serve our primary constituents better,” Austin Peay athletics director Gerald Harrison said.
Harrison said most of the new athletic facility will be ready by mid-August, but some parts will take longer to complete and will done in phases. He said phase one, gutting the interior while installing high performance field turf, would cost close to $300,000.
“Our facility’s first priority will be our student athletes,” Harrison told The Leaf-Chronicle. “We want to give them the opportunity to improve competitively.”
Austin Peay discussed turning its tennis facility into an athletic center prior to Harrison’s arrival as AD. Harrison admitted that it was one of the first things he thought about when he arrived in Clarksville.
Among those opposed to the change has been the Clarksville Tennis Association. The organization launched an online petition last year in an effort to save the tennis center and collected more than 1,300 signatures.
“The timing just really stinks,” CTA president Preston Howell said. “It seems like (Harrison) took advantage of this time where there was nobody around and nobody was paying attention.”
Austin Peay’s tennis center is the only indoor tennis facility in the region outside of Nashville. In addition to the Govs men’s and women’s tennis teams, the center was used by multiple community groups, tennis leagues, youth clinics and high school district tournaments.
“We had a meeting with him in October of 2018 when all this first came up,” Howell said. “We know the main function of the facilities at APSU should be in support of the APSU athletic teams and students. We agree with that.”
“But the AD at the time implied to us they were conducting a feasibility study to turning the tennis center into a multi-use facility that would help football and tennis. We were skeptical at the time because if it would house football it probably wasn’t going to house tennis as well.”
Thousands in Clarksville and surrounding communities visit the tennis center on an annual basis.
Swan Lake is the only outdoor courts in the city with eight courts.
“That’s a disgrace,” Howell said. “There are smaller cities with better facilities.
The CTA expressed concern for the Govs’ tennis programs and how the transition from an indoor facility to its outdoor courts would affect recruiting.
Nearly a dozen Division I schools have cut men’s tennis in 2020, with UConn scheduled to follow suite in 2021. OVC schools Eastern Kentucky (2018), Murray State (2016) and Morehead State (2016) already have cut men’s tennis programs.
But Austin Peay’s women’s team finished the 2018-19 regular season undefeated (20-0) and 8-0 in OVC play before suffering its only loss to Wake Forest in the NCAA tournament. The team was 9-3 entering March before the COVID-19 pandemic ended the spring sports season.
Harrison responded to criticism that the university has turned its back on Clarksville’s tennis community.
“I’m sympathetic,” he said. “I understand how they feel. We looked at our outdoor courts and we needed to upgrade that and create an atmosphere that’s good for our tennis programs. And as much as we love being a part of the Clarksville community, my first priority is to my student athletes. We’re in the position to do what’s best for the 350 of them.”
Harrison said he’s kept in communication with men’s and women’s coach Ross Brown. Harrison said Brown wasn’t eager to lose tennis space and admitted that Govs tennis players might have to travel to Nashville for offseason indoor workouts.
“No coach likes to lose space and opportunity,” Harrison said. “They were one of the few to have an indoor and outdoor facility around this area, outside of Nashville. But Coach Brown has a great understanding of the bigger picture. He’s been candid with us and passionate about it, but we want people to understand we’re not devaluing tennis.”
Harrison also addressed the concern that the new facility is a “football shrine.”
“It’s not a football shrine,” Harrison said. “This isn’t for the sole purpose of football. This is a transformative moment for Austin Peay athletics. We want our coaches to tell the story of how this university made progress.”
Reach George Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 931-245-0747 and on Twitter @Cville_Sports.
Published 5:27 PM EDT Jun 25, 2020