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Fairmont State, Marion County welcome attention from hosting NCAA tournament games

Mar. 15—CHARLESTON — Beginning Friday afternoon and going into Saturday, Fairmont State University will host three NCAA Division II Atlantic Region women's basketball tournament games in Joe Retton Arena in the Feaster Center.

"I think it's huge," Fairmont State women's basketball head coach Stephanie Anderson said. "It's a great experience for our players. It's all of their first time ever being in the NCAA Tournament. For them to get to do it at home in front of their friends and family and bring that atmosphere back to all the fans is amazing."

Fairmont State, who got an automatic tournament bid after winning the Mountain East Conference title, enters the tournament not as the No. 1 seed but the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic Region. No. 1 Gannon University is the top seed in the region not just in the women's tournament but also the men's tournament, which will play on the same days.

As Fairmont State Athletic Director Greg Bamberger explained, the NCAA let Gannon host half of each tournament instead of choosing one over the other. That means California University (Pennsylvania) will host the other half of the men's and Fairmont State hosts the other half of the women's.

"Gannon is hosting the first, fourth, fifth and eighth seed of both the men and the women in the Atlantic Region," Bamberger said. "And we, being the No. 2 regional ranked team, are hosting the second, third, sixth and seventh ranked teams in the Atlantic Region."

As the secondary region host of the tournament, Fairmont State welcomes No. 3 Fayetteville State from Fayetteville, N.C., No. 6 Indiana University of Pennsylvania from Indiana, Pa. and No. 7 West Chester University from West Chester, Pa.

Fairmont State is no stranger to hosting regional tournaments. The men's basketball team hosted the Atlantic Region in 2017 when it made a run to the Division II National Championship game, falling in the end to Northwest Missouri State.

While Anderson said that teams that made the region tournament should not be taken lightly, she admitted that hosting these games, not having to travel long distances and playing on home court provides an advantage in tournament play.

"Playing at home, your kids are comfortable," Anderson said. "We have a fifth-year senior [Katy Darnell] who's played here for five years now and a lot of four year kids. It's home, their locker room is the locker room they go to everyday, it's the rims, but at the end of the day, the competition is still going to be great, so you still have to show up and make sure that you play the game at a high level."

These are tournament games, however, meaning they're NCAA events and not Fairmont State or MEC events. As Bamberger explained, there will be some differences to how its run, including no sideline seating and a neutral demeanor from the public address announcer during games.

With people coming from outside Marion County and even West Virginia to watch these games, it creates an opportunity for Fairmont State to put itself on the map in people's minds. While Anderson will be more focused on coaching than recruiting, Bamberger hopes people, maybe prospective students, will be interested in the university to further their education.

"I hope that people that do watch the game... will see some great women's basketball, and they'll see it as 'Hey, that looks like a nice place to be," Bamberger said. "Maybe there's a young lady or a young student that likes what they see out of our team and likes what they see out of the facility, at least what they can see."

Fans who don't go in person to watch the game can watch it via streaming on the NCAA website for $9.95 a game, $29.95 per championship or $49.95 for all games. Bamberger doesn't know if there will be any advertisements for Fairmont State during the livestream, but he's confident the Falcons will represent the school well during the tournament.

With at least three teams worth of visitors coming to Fairmont, the tournament creates an increase in tourism interest for some of the unique places in Fairmont and Marion County, according to Leisha Elliot, executive director of the Convention & Visitors Bureau of Marion County.

"Anytime you're bringing people from outside of the area, it's a real boost not just to the economy in the short term, but I think there's always the opportunity that maybe people are here for a specific event, but see some of the cool things and cool restaurants and cool events that are happening and try to come back," Elliott said.

Elliott listed Prickett's Fort State Park, Valley Falls State Park, Palatine Park and Country Club Bakery as attractions people like to go to when visiting Fairmont. She recalled a time a family stopped by the Visitor's Bureau and got a booklet on pepperoni rolls because they wanted to go to Country Club Bakery.

Middletown Commons also attracts visitors in Fairmont, Elliott said, because of its variety of shops and restaurants and its proximity to the Fairfield Inn & Suites and the Microtel Inn & Suites.

"There's basically something that would appeal to everyone," Elliott said. "For anybody coming to the area, Middletown Commons is definitely an extra attraction."

Fairmont State tips off the tournament against West Chester at 5 p.m. Friday afternoon, March 15. Fayetteville State then plays IUP at 7:30 p.m. that evening. The semifinal takes place at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 16.

While Fairmont State plays as the highest seed in the games at Joe Retton Arena, Anderson expects an exciting challenge from West Chester in the region quarterfinal.

"Last year, they made it all the way to the regional final," Anderson said. "They're not a team that's new to this. They made it back to the NCAA regional again, and I think they're solid. They have a lot of experience, and they work extremely hard. It'll be a good matchup, and I'm excited for it."

Reach Colin C. Rhodes at 304-367-2548