George Fox University head men's tennis coach Neal Ninteman likes to quip that in the Northwest, tennis is an indoor sport.
But because the Bruins don't have any indoor courts on campus or easy access to nearby facilities, Ninteman doesn't often laugh when he makes the joke.
That's about to change, though, as the university is set to construct a six-court facility of its own at the Austin Sports Complex over the next three months.
"We kind of went from rags to riches because there are only a few universities that have six indoor courts," Ninteman said. "The University of Oregon does and the University of Washington does. At the Division I level that's normal because college matches are played on six courts, but this is going to be a premier facility, certainly in the Portland area and one of the best in the Northwest."
The men's or women's teams won't have to wait very long for the new amenity, either, as construction could be completed as early as October.
The university, which filed its initial design review application to the city of Newberg on March 29, could move quickly on the project because it has chosen a relatively inexpensive and easy to build steel-framed structure.
Produced by Iowa-based ClearSpan Fabric Structures, the building will consist of more than 30 tubular steel trusses, over which a translucent PVC fabric will be stretched. It will stretch 320 feet wide and 140 feet deep, with the trusses measuring just over 50 feet at their peaks, giving the university 44,800 square feet of space.
"They're really neat," women's coach Rick Cruz said. "I've actually played in a couple of them. It's really exciting because it's much better than a bubble that you see up here in the Northwest. It will feel and look like a real building."
The courts will be built on asphalt that has been treated with a commonly used acrylic polymer coating. The building will not be heated and will feature ceiling fans and large doors on either end to provide ventilation on hot days.
Ninteman is especially excited about how well-lit the courts promise to be, as the large amount of natural light that the translucent fabric lets through means that LED lighting will only be used at night, making it an energy efficient structure to boot.
"Tennis players, we care about lighting and court surface probably more than anything in the building," Ninteman said. "Our lighting is just going to be superb and our court surfacing will be done by just a great company. We've got room for spectators and I think college tennis is going to be a popular event in Newberg."
The structure will sit at 1105 Crestview Drive, just south and west of the soccer/lacrosse facility and will be take advantage of the Austin Complex's existing building, which features, restrooms, concessions, training rooms and storage space.
The building will sit on a raised patch of land that was originally graded for a football field about six years ago. According to GFU President Robin Baker, the university opted to build its stadium on campus both to cut cost by about 50 percent and to amplify football's impact on the student body by having it centrally located.
Total project costs are expected to be around $1.2 million and the structure itself will cost about $500,000. The rest of the costs will cover development, including a 100-space parking lot parallel to Crestview Drive, a service road to the soccer facility and a five-foot sidewalk also along Crestview.
Baker noted that the low cost of the structure was one of a several major factors that contributed to the timing of the decision and that the development aspects were something the university was going to have to do eventually anyway.
The university has been discussing the general possibility of an indoor tennis facility for many years, but has seriously explored numerous options in the past five years or so, according to Baker.
A graduate of Grand Canyon University, Baker attended an alumni event and toured a similar facility in the middle of its campus and walked away impressed.
"It actually looked really good," Baker said. "I always thought it was kind of junk, but they gave me a tour and it looked like it worked really well. It cut the cost by more than half of a sort of steel structure and it doesn't look bad. We thought, particularly out at Austin, it would be fine."
The other major factor in moving forward with the project now was George Fox's continued growth, as it has increased its freshmen enrollment for five consecutive years.
With relatively few places to expand on the traditional campus, the university has been eying the school's outdoor tennis courts as the preferred location for future development and will now be able to move forward, perhaps in just two or three years.
"The strict reason for why now is that we have plans on the board for an art center on our campus as sort of our next featured building," Baker said. "The liable place for that is the tennis courts, so it's really twofold. It's the need for expanded curricular space for the academic community and the fact that we really have to make a decision on whether we can continue tennis if we don't have some indoor access."
Baker said the answer to the latter question was, more and more, becoming no because the tennis teams have had to scramble so much in recent years, both for practice space and to host home matches.
The women's team, for instance, did not host a single home match on campus last season. In the past several seasons, the Bruins have been forced to practice and compete as far away as Vancouver, Wash.
"We've been doing it pretty handicapped," Ninteman said. "We're the only team that doesn't have access to indoor facilities and we've been, with smoke and mirrors, making it work."
The decision to build immediately has already impacted scheduling, as Ninteman has already reached agreements that will bring schools from Texas and California to Newberg next spring.
"Plans are in the works for us to host an Oregon indoor invitational tournament, to host with Linfield," Ninteman said. "We could just never do things like that in the past."
Ninteman and Cruz added that with the success the tennis programs have had, over the past five to six years for the men and the past two for the women, George Fox is attracting a higher caliber athlete that expects to practice on a daily basis. Now that will be possible.
"There was almost a three-month break where if they're hitting even once a week they're lucky," Cruz said. "Now, even during that dead period when we can't be with them or work with them, they can always go hit and get together as a group. So it's a huge difference not only for the players currently on the team, but for recruiting."
The building will also have design features that will allow a few other George Fox teams to take advantage of the indoor facility. Nets will be installed to separate two of the courts for use by the softball and baseball teams.
The building was also made about 20 feet deeper than is strictly needed for tennis, which will allow for the installation of a batting cage and a short, straight-line track for the track and field team to use in the winter.
Although the building will primarily be used by George Fox teams and students, Baker said the university is more than willing to open the facility to use by community partners like the Chehalem Park and Recreation District and the Newberg High School, but a management system will have to be worked out first.
"We'll have to find times that work around our schedule, but if you've got six indoor tennis courts and someone who needs them close by, that would be a win for Newberg High tennis," Ninteman said. "We'd love to help them out. It'd be silly not to do that for them."
In the meantime, a world of possibilities has rather quickly opened up for the GFU tennis programs, even if they approached the facility issue in the past as an obstacle that simply had to be overcome.
"You don't think about it at the time, you just press on," Ninteman said. "Then when you get out of the woods is when you look back and think about it as an accomplishment. I think that's where we're at. We're just so thrilled that we have such high dreams for the program. It was a really serious obstacle and now we've got amazing facilities going forward, which means our dreams can be even higher."