The S.C. High School League soccer championships have a new venue this year at Gilbert High.
The Indians will play host to eight state title games Friday and Saturday in their brick-faced, cast-iron gated stadium nestled beside a two-lane road six-miles off of Interstate 20.
It is far from the games’ traditional venues, USC’s Stone Field and Richland District 1’s Memorial Stadium in downtown Columbia. But it is not an obscure choice.
“There’s no doubt about it, we’re out here in the country,” Gilbert athletics director Barry Harley said. “But anything in Lexington 1 is going to be done right and our facilities are as good as some of the best in the state.”
League commissioner Jerome Singleton said several factors made Gilbert a good choice when Memorial Stadium, where the championships had been held for the past several years, became unavailable.
“Gilbert was the place where the set up is nice. We’ve held other state championships there and we know the administration is willing to work with us. Gilbert will be a great host, I’m sure,” Singleton said.
Gilbert’s athletics complex has been the chosen neutral site for Class 4A and 3A baseball championships in recent years, and the Indians baseball team has hosted championship games as well. The Indians’ football/soccer stadium seats about 4,000, which makes for an intimate setting for the smaller schools’ title games.
The Indians did not pursue the job of hosting this year’s event, but accepted the host role with pride.
“It’s an exciting task,” Harley said. “We have a great venue, a great environment and super facilities here. I think that’s why we have requests all the time. We never put it out there because it’s a tremendous amount of work. It’s just a way of helping out the state and the athletics community.”
Singleton said the League’s costs for this year’s event at Gilbert are not substantially different than when the title games are held in Columbia. Most of the fees remain the same except for the travel costs for the officials. He said the League elected not to return to Stone Field because that stadium has seating only on one side, which does not allow for separating opposing teams’ fans, but the championship event could return to Memorial Stadium next year.
“We would like to keep it in the middle of the state if possible, because that’s what our fans are used to,” Singleton said.
In the meantime, though, Harley and the Gilbert staff aim to make soccer fans’ trip off the beaten path an enjoyable one.
“We try to make it a warm and a fun environment. We want it to be something where when they walk away from here, they are surprised. A lot of times people come out here and they don’t expect us to have very nice facilities,” Harley said. “We’re spending every day preparing. I hope that everybody will come in and enjoy it as much as we do. And I think they will.”