Bears return home, practice in Memorial

Jeff Tedford (Dan Kwon)

California returns to renovated Memorial Stadium for the first time Thursday morning, but shifts focus toward fielding team worthy of $300-million upgrade.

BERKELEY, Calif. – Near the start of every practice, California players gather in a circle.

"Whose house? Our house," they bellow.

Those words took on a very different meaning Thursday morning, as the Golden Bears practiced for the first time in Memorial Stadium, newly renovated at a cost of more than $300 million.

"It feels like so long since we've been in here," head coach Jeff Tedford said.

"We always talk about our house, about owning our house, and it takes on a new meaning when you actually get in your house."

For Tedford, it marks one of the final steps in a 10-year process to bring the aging venue, which opened in 1923, into the modern era. It will now feature an enclosed press box and luxury suites, along with seismic upgrades.

The Simpson High-Performance Center holds office space, meeting and locker rooms for the football program, in addition to weight training and academic support for all Cal student-athletes. Located underneath the stadium, it opened last November.

"It means there has been a lot of hard work, a lot of devotion that has gone into this project," Tedford said. "Being here 10 years and knowing where it started to now look at it, there is a great sense of pride."

Tedford believes it has leveled the playing field in recruiting, but knows the real challenge will be fielding a team worthy of its surroundings.

"One of the things I wanted to make clear to them is this is beautiful and this is great, but the product that goes out between the lines is the important part," Tedford said.

Cal has enjoyed one of the better home-field advantages in the conference over the last decade, posting a .758 winning percentage. Even last season, playing home games at AT&T Park in San Francisco, the Bears went 4-1.

Players are more than ready to embrace the challenge, but did take a moment to enjoy the momentous occasion.

"I came out here and I had goose bumps," running back Isi Sofele said. "It brought up a lot of memories, back to my freshman and sophomore year when I was behind Jahvid (Best) and Shane (Vereen). It feels good to be back out here. I love this."

The roughly 90-minute session allowed players to get familiar with the new artificial turf, and early reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

"Man, I feel like Usain Bolt out here," Sofele said. "I feel faster out here. Our wide receivers, all the backfield guys is looking faster out here. It just felt good."

But Cal cannot practice there on a full-time basis until August 24th. The north tunnel of the stadium is not yet paved, which prevents some equipment such as blocking sleds from being moved in.

In the meantime, they will alternate between Witter Rugby Field and Memorial Stadium, sometimes in the same session.

The change can't come soon for Sofele, who rued "all the times we had to walk all up the hills.

"It's great to come back and go straight to the locker room and straight to the field," he added.

Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and covers the Pac-12 for Fox Sports/Scout.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.

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