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VERMILLION, S.D. | Austin Sparks, a redshirt freshman from Colorado, signed with the University of South Dakota basketball team to be part of a new era in Coyote athletics. 

It will be a new era with a big new arena.

When the 2016 season begins, the men’s and women’s basketball teams, as well as the volleyball team, will perform in front of a possible crowd of 6,000 in the brand new, 173,000-square-foot, $66 million Sports Performance Enhancement Facility.

Ground work has started on the project, which will be connected to the south side of the DakotaDome, built in 1979. Once dirt work is finished, foundation pillars will be placed and construction on the facility will be in full force.

For now, part of the DakotaDome parking lot is torn up, and eventually work will start to connect that facility with the new building. Athletic Director David Herbster said the work is not expected to impact games or performances in the dome. 

“We’ve made other parking available for football games and once basketball season starts, those parking areas will be available as well,” he said.

The new complex will contain the new arena, two practice courts, a 7,500-square-foot weight room, a sports medicine and athletic training area, and academic space for physical and occupational therapy, kinesiology and sports science programs.

“What this does for us, as a college, is elevates our athletic facilities up to par with the rest of our campus,” Herbster said.

Crews broke ground in June. Work is scheduled to finish in fall 2016.

BUILDING SPREE 

The USD construction is one of several high-profile projects on Siouxland campuses in recent years. 

Briar Cliff University spent about $10.75 million upgrading Heelan Hall. Morningside College recently unveiled a$13 million Academic Village. The new DeWitt Learning Commons opened at Northwestern College in Orange City last year. 

About $12 million was spent expanding the USD Muenster University Center, which opened in January.

With the new USD project, Herbster said both students and athletes will benefit from the academic wing. Physical therapy and occupational therapy students can practice lessons with the student athletes in the same location where they learn, and athletes will have constant access to treatments.

“We always want to make sure they (students) transfer learning to the field,” said Michael Lawler, dean of the school of health. “We’ll have labs to test fitness and the various aspects of the individuals we’re working with to help our students connect with athletes who are playing sports with the university.”

While not much more than a wide expanse of dirt at the moment, head men’s basketball coach Craig Smith said the start of construction is a welcome sight. Once the arena opens, Smith said it will provide an advantage to his players and the other athletic programs.

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“With the new practice facility being tied in, our guys will always have a court to go shoot on, a gym to work out in and 24-hour access,” he said. “There’s no excuse not to have our guys reach maximum potential.”

A HELP WITH SCHEDULING 

Herbster said the arena also will continue to help USD athletics transition into Division I competition, a switch made in 2011. Because both basketball and football are held in the DakotaDome, Herbster said, home basketball games are fairly limited until football season ends. Should the football team make the playoffs and host an opening round home game, he said, the schedule could be disrupted even more.

Smith said that earlier home games will help build fan excitement and gain momentum before conference competition begins.

“To be able to schedule games from day one instead of waiting three weeks into the season will allow us more flexibility,” he said. “It will help our fan interest and give them the opportunity to get excited about the program.”

Excited fans mean higher attendance, and higher attendance means louder crowds, which Sparks, a power forward, said may be his favorite part of the new facility.

“The way the dome is set up, it’s hard for them to get loud,” he said. “With the new arena, they’ll be right on top of us. It'll be crazy”

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