February 27, 2007

Bleed Maroon: Students bring spirit in St. Louis

A primary front in the Midwestern recruiting wars and a sensible rivalry within the skewed geography of the UAA, the Chicago–Wash U hate-fest has in the past been meaningful mostly to players and coaches. This weekend, with the stakes for all four basketball teams higher than ever before, all of that began to change.

With three squads vying for a conference title and one needing one last win to stay in the NCAA tournament picture, a large crowd was expected for Chicago’s trip to St. Louis. From the opening moments of the women’s game until a wave of students charged the court after the men’s bout went final, the Wash U fans—and their severely out-numbered but not out-spirited U of C counterparts—helped turn the rivalry weekend into something more significant than just another end-of-season UAA game.

As the seconds ticked away in men’s basketball’s 79–74 loss Saturday, the crowd inside the Wash U Field House began to rock in anticipation. From the Phi Delt “Bomb Squad” seated next to the pep band—itself clad in army camouflage—to the shirtless students in the front row, to the face-painted, red T-shirt–toting denizens and the idol-worshipping students in “Sean Wallis #24” T-shirts filling out the lower level of seating, cheering erupted from every corner of the gym. Relentless in their fervor for most of the afternoon, the packed student section could hold back no more as the clock struck zero on the Maroons’ outright UAA title hopes.

Beginning as a timid trickle then breaking off into a full-scale swarm, the Bears faithful stormed the court like a bunch of, well, college kids. At that moment, Wash U Field House could just as easily have been Naismith or Cameron or Gallagher-Iba: The thrill of victory is the same no matter the level. It was a fitting, if bittersweet, conclusion to a day that marked the next step in the evolution of the Chicago–Wash U rivalry.

Much was made before the game of the steps being taken by the hosts to boost attendance for the game. But efforts by the Wash U athletic department to promote the game as a chance to “Paint the Field House Red” were undermined by lack of funding, and an intra-frat competition likely helped boost the attendance figures only marginally. The truth of the matter was that the vast majority of the 2,200 people showed up for a basketball game for one simple reason: to watch Wash U beat Chicago (or vice versa).

A leaking, creaking gymnasium straight out the set of Hoosiers, the Field House has averaged around 800 fans per contest during most of the regular season but saw that figure more than double for the women’s game and nearly triple for the men’s. Due to the construction of the gym, an already loud student section was boiled to a fever pitch. In the final minute of regulation of the women’s game, the crowd was on its feet, jumping up and down and erupting with every made basket and rebound from the home team, their cheers and steady drone amplified by the wall behind them that separated the upper and lower levels. Hearing was next to impossible, as was lateral movement, with the crowd stacked three deep on the sideline in front of the bleachers and full to the brim in the seats they so rarely made use of.

At no other point in the history of the rivalry could such an atmosphere have existed. A matchup that has been dominated by the perennial national contenders from St. Louis, a win at the Field House has usually been a foregone conclusion for the Wash U women. Now the programs are on equal footing, as evidenced by the season-opening win by the Maroons, the hosts’ narrow escape Saturday, and more importantly the hundreds of students who turned out to witness it.

Holding their own amid the cavalcade of red shirts, a small but vocal contingent of U of C students made itself heard from its perch behind the basket. Led by “W-Head” fourth-year John Saxton and Tyjuan Edwards, aka “Top 50,” the Maroons’ faithful did their best to make their presence felt. But deterred by the prospect of a six-hour drive and an early morning start, the contingent turned out to be significantly smaller than had been hoped for.

Undermanned, the visiting fans made their presence felt in a variety of ways throughout the second game. Their view obstructed at one point by a group effort of Wash U students, Saxton and company eschewed violence for a more practical solution: They tried to join ranks. There they stood crowding the baseline, staggered in red and white like a broken stick of peppermint as third-year forward Troy Ruths attempted his free throws. After 30 seconds or so, security moved both parties away.

Doing their best to fan the flames before the game, the South Siders scored a minor victory with a little bit of trickery. They convinced the Wash U mascot, a large Bear in a tight-fitting red T-shirt with claw marks on the back, to don the W-Head hats and pose for a photograph. Under the mistaken impression that the “W” stood for Washington, the Bear happily obliged and posed for photographs, to the delight of all involved.

With its dismissal of evolution, intolerance of Catholics, and only recently-lifted ban on freedom of expression, Wheaton College may seem on the surface to be a more fitting ideological rival for the Maroons. Its polarizing faculty and administration and suffocating religious zealotry finds natural resistance among an intellectual student body. But the atmosphere Saturday in St. Louis should leave no doubt as to who is public enemy number one for Maroons fans now: It’s Washington, first in war, first in peace, and first in the UAA—again.