DALTON, Ga. (WRCB) -- Caz Cole looked up into the seats of the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center before the start of practice Wednesday afternoon.
The arena was empty and quiet, aside from a few teammates warming up. He knew it wouldn't stay like that for long.
"There's a lot of people looking forward to this," the Dalton grad said of Thursday night's home-opener for Dalton State basketball.
A sell-out crowd is expected for what will be the Roadrunners' first home game in 35 years. The program was disbanded in 1978 after an ultra-successful eleven year run.
While many have long-since forgotten the glory days of one of the state's proudest junior college programs, Cole knows them better than most.
"My dad was on the first team ever when they had JUCO ball," he said. "There's a lot of stories from the town and the antics they had. It was a great thing and a great time.
"It means a lot to me that he was on the first team ever and now I'm on the first team in the four-year era in NAIA. I know how special it is."
So does Tony Ingle, the man charged with rebooting the long-dormant program.
The former Kennesaw State head coach had just one scholarship offer when he graduated from Northwest Whitfield High School some 40 years ago: Dalton Junior College.
Now he has a chance to give back to his alma mater.
"Coming (back) to Dalton is something I never really thought would happen," Ingle said. "But this is my home and my heart is at Dalton State College."
The Roadrunners were once the heart of the entire Dalton community, as well.
Head coach Melvyn Ottinger's up-tempo team played to raucous crowds at Bandy Gym, which was dubbed "Death Valley" by the legendary head coach, and his team delivered a product worthy of the attention.
The Roadrunners went 120-11 on their home floor during a ten-year span while winning state and regional championships. Dalton made its first-ever appearance in the national tournament in 1972 and in 1974 finished No. 2 in the country at 35-2 overall.
It's a rich history that gives the new Roadrunners plenty to live up to.
"We meet people every day from different backgrounds who tell us how much we mean to them, how much the team means to them," Cole said. "We understand what that means and how important that is to take this seriously and treat this like home."
More than three decades after those glory days, Dalton State officials made the decision to not just reboot men's basketball, but to fund and develop an entire athletics department.
Derek Waugh was hired last year as the school's first athletic director since Ottinger, and soon after Ingle was brought on board with the men's basketball team being the centerpiece of the department's resurgence.
"One of my favorite quotes is, 'If the dream is big enough, the obstacles will be small enough to overcome,'" Ingle said. "What we're hoping to do is bring everyone together. It's not my team. It's not their team. It's our team."
The homecoming culminates Thursday with the Roadrunners' first official home game in 35 years.
They've already played three games in their first season as an NAIA program, winning a trio of nail-biters at Spring Hill, Bellhaven and Southern Wesleyan.
"I feel like we've been on the road for three weeks," Ingle said of the seven-day, three-state road trip. "I still see the white lines from the highway in my sleep and I definitely need a few more Advil at my age for these bus trips."
That early-season sacrifice was more than worth it for Cole.
He leapt at the opportunity to transfer home from Auburn-Montgomery last year to wear the same colors as his father. And after 35 years of waiting, he figured Dalton State fans could wait another week to pen the first chapter in a new book of Roadrunner basketball.
"My whole entire family can't wait and there's so many people in town who cant wait for this," he said. "It's just all been really exciting and it will definitely be emotional. This isn't just putting in work for me.
"When you love something and you love where you're doing it, it makes it all even better."
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