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wvsu field upgrades2

Pro Football Hall of Fame player Willie Lanier speaks at a ceremony Tuesday afternoon at West Virginia State University announcing upgrades to the football field as WVSU football coach John Pennington (from left) and women’s soccer coach Lisa Mann look on. Lanier’s non-profit Honey Bear Project has pledged $1.28 million for artificial turf for the field, which will also get new lighting and renovations to the bleachers.

The football field at West Virginia State University will have a new playing surface, new illumination, new seating, even a new name.

WVSU officials announced Tuesday a nearly $2 million project to upgrade Lakin Field — which will be renamed Lakin-Ray Field — on the school’s campus in Institute that will include the installation of an artificial-turf playing surface, lights and new bleachers.

Besides the football team, the renovated field will also be used by the WVSU women’s soccer team and will be available for use by youth and club teams in the area.

Funding for the installation of artificial turf came from a pledge of $1.28 million by the Honey Bear Project, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization created to upgrade athletic facilities at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

The Honey Bear Project was created by Willie “Honey Bear” Lanier, a Pro Football Hall of Fame member who played in college at Morgan State University, an HBCU in Baltimore.

Lanier, who played for the Kansas City Chiefs in the first Super Bowl in 1967 and won a Super Bowl championship with the Chiefs in 1970, was on hand for Tuesday’s announcement and said WVSU is the fifth school to receive funding through the project.

Funding for the new lighting and bleacher renovations comes from a $250,000 matching challenge gift from the Bernard H. and Blanche E. Jacobson Foundation, a local group with the goal of “contributing to the quality of life for citizens in the state of West Virginia, and particularly in the Kanawha Valley,” according to a WVSU release. Dr. Sami Ghareeb, chairman of the WVSU Foundation’s Board of Governors, said the WVSU foundation will strive to match the $250,000 gift from the Jacobson Foundation. The Kanawha Valley Commission also pledged $150,000 to the project, which would bring the funding total for the project to $1.93 million.

The first phase of the upgrade — the installation of the artificial turf — will be completed by the Yellow Jackets’ Oct. 16 homecoming game against Mountain East Conference opponent UNC Pembroke, WVSU Athletic Director Nate Burton said.

“We’re working with the construction company and turf company [Shaw Sports Turf] so that [the installation] should be completed by Oct. 9,” Burton said. “Weather can change that, but as of now there’s no doubt that it will be ready [by Oct. 16].”

WVSU has two scheduled home games before then — Sept. 11 vs. Frostburg State and Oct. 2 vs. Alderson Broaddus. Since the renovated field won’t be ready by those dates, Burton said he is working with the Mountain East Conference to determine where those two games will be played.

“It’s not set in stone yet” where the first two home games will be played, Burton said.

Options?

“Anywhere in Kanawha County, whether it’s a high school field or a college field,” Burton said.

Burton noted that WVSU was the only remaining MEC football-playing school without an artificial-turf home field, and that the renovations should be a boon to the teams’ recruiting efforts.

“This changes things not only for our football team and our women’s soccer team, but for the whole athletic department,” Burton said. “The ability to bring prospects here and show them the turf field, in combination with the Monroe Athletic Complex [completed in 2014, adjacent to the football field, at a cost of $3.5 million], I think it will be tough for recruits to turn us down.”

WVSU coaches heartily welcomed the renovations.

“It’s incredible to be out here and see how far the football program and the university have come since I’ve been here,” said Yellow Jackets head coach John Pennington, who took over the job in 2017.

The WVSU women’s soccer team holds practices and plays its home games at the nearby Shawnee Sports Complex, but now will have an on-campus home to call its own.

“Shawnee’s not too far away — you can see the top of the lights from here,” said Lisa Mann, the WVSU women’s soccer coach in her third season at the helm. “But we’ve had to schedule two-hour time slots to practice at Shawnee, and we share it with youth and club teams, and we’ve had to rent their fields.

“But now, just being able to have our own field, we’ll be able to play here and practice here and host our own camps here. It will help with recruiting especially.”

The new lighting system will begin to be installed in September and is planned to be operational before the conclusion of the 2021 football season, and new bleachers are scheduled to be installed in 2022.

John Ray, the grandson of James Lakin — for whom the football field was named — has been active in philanthropic support for both WVSU and the Jacobson Foundation. In recognition of Ray’s contributions to his family legacy of leadership and support, WVSU will rename its football field Lakin-Ray Field.

Nick Scala is the sports editor. He can be reached at 304-348-7947 or nickscala@hdmediallc.com. Follow him on Twitter @nick_scala319.