University City

Young crowd will pack Halton for Education Day

As usual, the Charlotte 49ers women's basketball team will try to school another opponent when it hosts the La Salle Explorers on Wednesday.

At the same time, thousands of fans in Halton Arena will be enjoying their own educational experience.

The 49ers are hosting their annual Education Day, a weekday matinee basketball game in which the Charlotte athletics department invites fourth- and fifth-graders from Charlotte-area elementary schools to attend for free.

The basketball game is only part of the experience. Students will also partake in a pre-game carnival environment with inflatable amusements taking over the Barnhardt Student Activity Center food court, next to Halton Arena.

More important, the students will participate in an educational program in which athletic department leaders will enlighten them on what it means to be a collegiate student-athlete and the path one takes to get there.

The game is open to the public. Admission is free.

School buses, 127 of them, will start arriving at 9 a.m. First, youths will have access to the amusements and autographs from Charlotte 49ers student-athletes and the chance to make their own posters and signs for the game.

Mascots representing pro sports teams, fast-food restaurants, and the Charlotte Fire Department will play their own basketball game at halftime.

University Meadows Elementary School has participated in the event three out of five years. It will send about 225 students this year.

"Watching the kids' expressions on their faces," said fourth-grade teacher Kimberlee Harman, "... while they're watching the college students, you can tell they really look up to them. It encourages them to go to college.

"They understand that if they do their best, if they study hard, or if they do well in basketball, they maybe can go to college," Harman said.

The first Education Day game, which is unique to the women's basketball program at Charlotte, was held during the 2007-08 season. It drew fewer than 1,000 kids, according to director of marketing Nick Konawalik, but has grown exponentially.

Last year, approximately 3,000 students watched the Niners lose to Temple, 60-57. This year, Konawalik says 39 schools have committed to attend, bringing around 6,500 students. That's about 5,000 more fans than the 49ers' average attendance.

UNCC senior guard Katie Meador will be playing in her fourth Education Day game. She is excited to be part of the event's expansion, watching it grow from the sparse crowd it once drew to fans filling up half the arena.

"Education Day for us is a pretty amazing day," said Meador. "When we have crowds with such energy, it's great. But with the little kids in there, it's really loud, We try to prepare for that. (In the past) we have brought in a sound system to practice to simulate all the noise."

Last year's game was even more special to Meador. One of the teachers who brought her class to the game was a friend, former 49ers softball player Jenny Rumbles, who now teaches at Newell Elementary.

This will be Charlotte basketball coach Cara Consuegra's first Education Day game, though her team at Marquette hosted a similar event when she was an assistant there last season. She says the noon start time will change her team's pre-game ritual just a bit.

"We'll have a much earlier shoot around," said Consuegra. "They have to eat a good breakfast. The schedule is different but it's worth the sacrifice. It's fun for our players, too, to have such a great crowd cheering the entire time and playing in front of them."

Konawalik says the Atlantic 10 Conference, of which Charlotte is a member, has embraced the Education Day concept. The 49ers will play at Dayton's Education Day event on Feb. 8.

The 49ers opened A-10 play on Jan. 7 with a 58-54 win at Xavier, ending the Musketeers' 29-game regular season conference winning streak. Charlotte's overall record after the win was 9-6.