April 19, 2023 will be a day that many in Shawnee will never forget. Tornadoes ripped through Shawnee and Potawatomi County devastating much of the area and affecting the lives of thousands. According to the City of Shawnee’s Emergency Management Department, three tornados struck Pottawatomie County, including an EF2 twister that directly hit Shawnee High School and did damage all along Kickapoo, one of Shawnee’s main streets. In all, 1,800 structures in the county were damaged or destroyed.
Shawnee Public Schools took direct hits at multiple sites with the high school and its athletic facilities bearing the brunt of that storm.
“This tornado effected our schools, but it also effected the community at large,” says Shawnee Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Aaron Espolt. “The high school took the brunt of it. The high school auxiliary buildings such as our football stadium, baseball field, softball field, tennis facility, ag, band, and our essential operations building for transportation were all hit by the tornado. Working this summer to get our essential operations and transportation ready and getting those temporary envelopes of buildings fenced in so they’re in good condition for kids and students was really our focus.”
In the months since the tornadoes ripped through Shawnee, the district has worked to get students back in the classroom in a safe manner and with as little disruption as possible, something Dr. Espolt believes they have achieved.
“Once you get inside of our buildings, that daily, normal experience is just as it was last year,” says Dr. Espolt. “We put in a lot of work and effort to ensure a singular goal. That goal was to ensure all of our students have a quality educational experience in a safe and secure environment. There will be minor disruptions throughout the year as we rebuild but, as far as our classroom spaces, it should be operation as normal.”
While students should see only minimal disruption in their academic pursuits, athletics is a different story. The Stucker Center (wrestling), Performing Arts and Athletic Center (volleyball and basketball), and Jim Thorpe Stadium (football) all suffered structural damage for the storm. As did the softball, baseball, and tennis facilities.
Shawnee Athletic Director Dax Leone feels confident that the baseball facility will be repaired in time for the spring baseball season but the other sports, specifically the fall sports, have either been temporarily moved or completely displaced for the year.
“All varsity home football games are being played at Oklahoma Baptist. Our practice facility is fine, so we will still have our practices on campus but our home games have been moved,” says Leone. “Also, varsity softball will play at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s softball complex, and we can also practice out there when we need to. Volleyball will play their home games at the middle school. We are also trying to work with OBU to have a few volleyball matches played at the Green Campus.”
Basketball also could see a temporary home for the start of the season. The floor in the gym needs to be replaced but that cannot be done until all other repairs to the outside of the Performing Arts and Athletic Center (PAAC) are completed. If the Wolves and Lady Wolves basketball teams need to be displaced, Leone believes it would only be temporary and that both teams should be able to return to the PAAC for, at least, some of their season.
The one sport right now that has not found at least a temporary home is the swim team. SHS swims at the Shawnee YMCA but their pool was taken out by the tornado leaving the two-time defending champions without a place to practice.
“With them (YMCA) losing the pool, we are still trying to find a place for our kids to swim,” Leone says. “They’re in the splash pad right now and are going to make that work for as long as they can. We are working with the YMCA and they are trying to see if we can go to the YMCA in Midwest City. Harrah has also said we can use their pool but the timing for that likely won’t work out. Right now, one of our biggest challenges is finding a place for our swim team.”
While displacement is obviously not what anybody with the district wanted, SPS is doing all they can to ensure their student-athletes have an experience equal to or better than what they would experience playing their games at the high school facilities.
“We are very proud to working with our partners,” says Dr. Espolt. “What we’ve said is ‘it may be different but let’s ensure that it’s not less than.’” Building on that thought Leone says, “These partnerships are huge. To have these two organizations (OBU and CPN) right here to allow us to give our kids a normal experience and let them play in two of the best facilities in the state, is huge.”
While much of the focus for the student-athletes and the coaches is on their current season, the district and the athletic department have already begun work on the repair and replacement of those affected facilities. The work will be long, with estimates of 18-24 months before everything district-wide is fully rebuilt, but the district promises to return those facilities to even better condition than they were when they were untimely destroyed.
“Dr. Espolt, our new superintendent, has his vision to build it back better than it was before,” says Leone. “Although we have a ton of nice facilities, and if they got built back like they were they’d be some of the best around, we’ve had a vision of doing athletic improvements. So, these are some of the things we were already looking at down the road. When the tornado hit, it kind of changed the thought of how we do it. But we would love to build back better than what we had, and our kids deserve the best.”
Dr. Espolt and Leone both expressed gratitude for Shawnee’s community partners. From Citizen Potawatomi Nation to OBU to other area schools, SPS administration knows many events would not be happening this year without the community’s support. While a lot about the future of Shawnee athletics and its facilities are still unknown, one thing is certain: the town, its schools, its people, and the student-athletes are all #ShawneeStrong.