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Arizona boasts two extraordinary high school athletic facilities

Round_Valley_Ensphere   Wildcat_Den 
The Round Valley Ensphere  The Wildcat Den 

By John Gillis 

The Grand Canyon State of Arizona can boast not one, but two, extraordinary high school athletic facilities.

Those facilities ‑ the Round Valley Ensphere in Eagar and the Wildcat Den in Chinle – set an amazingly high standard for both functionality and opulence.

The wood dome Ensphere is the older of the two, having opened October 11, 1991. Built at the cost of $11 million, it is the result of a cooperative effort between the communities of Eagar and Springville. It is the first and only domed high school field house enclosing a football field, and also is the first dome of its kind to be fully daylighted, letting not only light but also heat to enter the 8 million cubic feet of space.

With a diameter of 440 feet and a height of 104 feet, the Ensphere has a field area of 113,000 square feet for football; a 200-meter track that includes long jump, high jump and pole vault; seven combination basketball/tennis/volleyball and badminton courts; and a softball diamond.

The unique-looking building is located on the campus of Round Valley High School in the town of Eagar. A true multipurpose facility, it lends itself to many community activities, conventions, exhibitions, car shows and fairs.

A football game in the Ensphere. 

Seating capacity for volleyball and basketball is 9,000, while 5,500 fans can watch a football game there. Dressing rooms and locker facilities are available for simultaneous use by up to four athletic teams.

Although built 21 years ago, it preceded the “environmental green movement” by being constructed in such a way that it conserves energy. Along with natural ground heat emission, the temperature will maintain itself to within a few degrees year-round. As such, it requires only a minimum of energy.

Acoustically, the shell ceiling absorbs 90 percent of sound, which results in a high level of clarity of voice announcements, musical performances and other audio sources.

During the Rodeo-Chedeski fire in 2002 (the second-largest in Arizona history), the Dome was used as a shelter. It took in 9,800 evacuees, tripling Eagar's population overnight. President George W. Bush visited the shelter.

The home of the Chinle High School basketball and volleyball programs is the magnificent 6,000-seat (all stadium seating with a capacity of 7,200) Wildcat Den, Arizona’s largest high school sports arena. Built in 2006 at a cost of $23 million, it was called by The Arizona Republic sports columnist Richard Obert “the best high school arena in Arizona.” It is also tied for the 15th-largest high school basketball gymnasium in the United States.

Located in Chinle, an unincorporated area of Apache County, Chinle High School is the largest high school within the Navajo Nation. Its enrollment of 1,130 students is served by 125 staff and faculty. Ninety-nine percent of the students are Native American, and are mainly Navajo.

Having been financed in-house with no debt incurred, the Wildcat Den was paid in full upon project completion. Most basketball games generate about $15,000 in ticket sales and between $7,000 and $14,000 in concessions. Those financial proceeds go toward the school district’s athletic department and to the upkeep of the building. The revenue generated by concession sales also help operate the adjacent swimming pool and weight room, which are used both by the schools and the public.

Playing a prominent role in the development of this state-of-the-art facility was Chinle School District Assistant Superintendent for Business Quincy Natay, who has served in that position for 22 years.

“I was the lead on the design of the project for development and implementation,” Natay said. “A lot of design concepts were brought out based upon several discussions with the architect and numerous site visits of other venues. I was also responsible for funding of the project.”

Chinle fans show their support at a basketball game. 

The Wildcat Den generates tremendous community pride as its design incorporates many natural and cultural features, including the four sacred colors in each of the appropriate directions, and the center-court depictions of the setting sun lighting up Spider Rock.

The Wildcat Den incorporates Chinle High School’s school colors of black and gold. The locker rooms include cherry wood lockers and cushioned folding chairs for each locker. They are carpeted and have embroidered Wildcat logos. Other amenities include individual showers, a team shop, a media room, a visitors’ lounge and four snack bars along the main concourse.

“The students have a lot of pride in the facility,” Natay said. “Their locker rooms are set up with cherry wood and individual dressing areas much like you see in professional venues. There is no other facility in the region that comes close to what the Wildcats have. It can be compared to a ‘mini-U.S. Airways Center’ (home of the National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Suns).

“We do have a home-court advantage because of the size of the crowds and it takes some teams a while to adjust to the openness of the arena. Most visitors are in awe of the facility the first time they see it.”

Despite its size, the Wildcat Den’s seating configuration is such that every fan has a great view of the action.

“During the design of the facility, we made sure that every seat or position in the arena had line-of-sight view of the entire court,” Natay said. “Every fan can see the playing area regardless of where they are watching ‑ there are no bad seats. The rake or slope of the bowl was designed in such a way that if a seven-foot person were sitting in front of you, your view would not be blocked.

“In addition, the acoustics are excellent. It gets very loud when we get a decent crowd, especially for the Chinle fans. Our sound system boasts 100,000 watts of sound that can be heard clearly.”

There is at least one known connection between the Ensphere and the Wildcat Den, as former Chinle High School Athletic Director Tot Workman opened the Round Valley Ensphere in the 1990s. Back then, he thought it was incredible for a high school dome to be built. Today, he says the Ensphere “doesn't even touch this” (the Wildcat Den).

According to Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) Executive Director and NFHS President-Elect Harold Slemmer, the Wildcat Den serves the AIA’s membership well.

“We use the Wildcat Den for section tournaments and state first-round playoffs,” Slemmer said. “It is usually full for most of those games. It is a state-of-the-art facility with lots of great atmosphere.”

The Wildcat Den is home to Chinle High School graduations. 

John Gillis is the associate director of publications and communications of the NFHS. If you have any comments or articles ideas, please forward them to Gillis at
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