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Prior Center a boon to Southwest Virginia athletics

Kevin Mays • Mar 22, 2020 at 10:00 AM

WISE — On Sept. 1, 2011, a decadelong dream became a reality for many in Southwest Virginia.

A project spearheaded by Dr. David J. Prior, then chancellor of Virginia-Wise, and Virginia House of Delegates member and Virginia-Wise alumnus Terry Kilgore, the UVA Wise Multipurpose Center opened its doors.

“A lot of people had dreams of something like this for Southwest Virginia,” said Chris Davis, director of what is now known as the David J. Prior Convocation Center. “The groundbreaking was held in 2009 and Dr. Prior thought it was important to have the building open in the fall of 2011. And they did it.”

The building gained its current name in the spring of 2012 after Prior tragically lost his life to a heart attack in February 2012.

Davis, the only director the Prior Center has ever had, said the facility continues to fulfill the dreams so many had for it.

“It was built to be a hub for Southwest Virginia for events,” Davis said. “To be a building not only the college can use, but for anyone in Southwest Virginia to use.”

SPORTS MECCA

When it comes to indoors sports in far Southwest Virginia, most consider the Prior Center to be the mecca.

Home to UVA Wise’s basketball teams and volleyball squad, the 3,500-seat facility has hosted some of the region and state’s top games at the high school level. Among them have been a regional volleyball tournament, two regional wrestling tournaments and numerous district, regional and state basketball tournaments in addition to individual games for area schools Central, Union and Eastside.

After Wise County consolidated its high schools in the fall of 2011, the Prior Center was home for Central’s basketball teams until the new high school opened in January 2014.

The Eastside and Gate City boys, granted special permission by VHSL to play a shot clock-enforced matchup, faced off in a benefit game at the center.

Each December, the Prior hosts the Grand Home Furnishings Holiday Classic boys basketball tournament and the Powell Valley National Bank Classic girls event. It’s also home to the Candace Rakes Memorial Jamboree for girls basketball as well as the yearly Bobby Bates Wrestling Classic.

The Cumberland District basketball tournaments are played yearly at the Prior, which also has hosted Region 2D, Region 1D, VHSL Class 1 and VHSL Class 2 tournament games. This past season, the Region 2D semifinals and championships, for both boys and girls hoops, a Class 1 boys state quarterfinal and Class 2 quarterfinal and semifinal girls games all played out at the Prior.

Davis said the facility also has hosted about 11 youth days over the past basketball season. The Wise Recreation Youth League has held games and tournaments at the Prior, which also has seen the Southwest Virginia Boys Basketball League tournament as well as a regional youth tournament that brought teams from Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The Prior also hosts various Fellowship of Christian Athletes events throughout the year and is home to the Virginia High School Coaches Association senior state all-star games that bring in players, coaches and fans from throughout the commonwealth.

THAT MAGICAL NIGHT

There have been plenty of big crowds for sporting events at the Prior Center, but there’s been only one night like that of Feb. 24, 2018.

The Prior hosted the 1D and 2D regional basketball semifinals for both boys and girls over a two-night span.

Then came championship night.

Eastside and Rye Cove faced off for the Region 1D girls championship. Central and Virginia High met in the Region 2D girls final. Eastside and Honaker squared off for the Region 1D boys crown. And to cap the night, Gate City and Graham met to decide the Region 2D boys title.

Like for every game the eventual state champion Gate City boys played that year — the senior season of Mac McClung, now playing for NCAA Division I Georgetown — the place was packed.

“That was the first time ever in our history that the fire marshal said we had to shut the doors,” Davis recalled. “I never thought we would’ve got to that point, but it was that way everywhere that McClung played that year.”

When the Prior shut its doors, Davis said about 300 people were still outside waiting to purchase tickets. Fortunately, he said, before the start of the Gate City game enough people had left from the earlier matchups to allow all who wanted to buy a ticket to get in.

That three-day span of regional tournament action at the Prior Center resulted in an economic impact of over $2 million for Wise County and the surrounding areas, Davis said.

The following year, the Prior Center hosted the VHSL Class 2 semifinal game between Region 2D girls basketball powers Central and Ridgeview.

Davis said the crowd, though not over capacity like for the previous year’s events, was amazing.

“By all accounts, it was the largest crowd in 20-some years for a girls high school basketball game,” Davis remarked. “That night, the stands were packed for a girls basketball game. I just thought that spoke volumes about how much Southwest Virginia supports its teams, no matter if it’s boys or girls basketball or whatever it is.”

The stands also were packed that night for the Class 1 boys semifinal between J.I. Burton and Eastside.

MUCH MORE THAN SPORTS

While the Prior Center is well known as one of the top sports venues in the state, it hosts events of all types both for the college and the communities that surround it.

One of the biggest, Davis recalled, was held in conjunction with Wise County Circuit Court Clerk Jack Kennedy in January 2012. Over 4,000 students from area schools came to the Prior to witness a live downlink from the International Space Station.

“It was really something to watch,” Davis said, adding: “This is why Dr. Prior fought so hard to have something like this happen.”

The Prior Center is the site for the UVA Wise commencement exercises and graduation ceremonies for Central, Eastside and Union high schools. It also hosts the Central and Union proms.

UVA Wise Chancellor Dr. Donna Henry’s inauguration ceremony was held at the Prior, which also has seen concerts, including three sold-out contemporary Christian shows, plus various conferences, weddings and receptions.

In the fiscal year running from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019, Davis said 748 events, including basketball and volleyball practices, took place at the Prior Center. A total of 81,800 visitors came to the venue during that time period.

TEAM EFFORT

Davis said making the Prior Center work smoothly requires an “It takes a village” mentality.

Assistant director Nick Marshall is the only other full-time employee at the center, but a crew of student workers fulfills a variety of duties that keep it running smoothly.

Many other college departments — campus police, maintenance ad housekeeping, among others— play key roles in keeping the Prior running. Chartwell’s food service operates the concession stands during most events at the Prior.

Everyone involved is key in making the center the showplace not only for UVA Wise, but also for Southwest Virginia, he said.

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