Posting daily is much tougher than I imagined, so I apologize for the delay.
Game day began at 7:30 am and ended at 3:00 am. Saturday was dubbed Shocker Saturday and it included sunflowers, the Shocker Sound, 4,000+ fans decked in their finest black and gold, former Shocker players from basketball, baseball and football, one of the largest pep rallies, the semi-finals and Shocker Nation on the verge of hysteria. You could feel it building within, ready to erupt.
The WSU Alumni Association stoked the fan fires by handing out these t-shirts first thing that morning.
The word of the day on Saturday: validation. The mantra: We Belong. The goal: make our mark.
After picking up our shirts, we headed to breakfast at The Flying Biscuit. Seated at a table next to a wall painted in sunflowers (a noted omen), we grubbed on creamy grits, homemade biscuits, turkey bacon, organic oat pancakes and fresh eggs. Fueled and ready to go.
First up, get to the Congress Center to cheer on the Shocker Sound in the Battle of the Bands, a competition between all four bands representing in the Final Four. I’ve always said our pep band is the best in the Valley and could give the bigger schools a run for their money. Apparently, the judges felt the same as the Shocker Sound won the trophy for Best Pep Band 2013. We were there to cheer them on and sing our war song, which a couple of Louisville fans said was the “coolest thing they’d ever heard.” Another omen?
Following our win of the Battle of the Bands, we headed to one of the exhibition halls for the two-hour tailgate/pep rally. We knew it would be a big event, but we were wrong. It was huge. More than 4,000 Shocker fans, free food, open bars throughout the hall, guests included two players from the 1965 Final Four team, players from the 80s, 90s and three from the 2006 Sweet Sixteen team, as well as players from baseball and football. Shocker family united to support this incredible run.
Plus, Debbie Kennedy, president of the WSU Alumni Association, spoke of presenting a gift basket and card to Kevin Ware, the Louisville Cardinal who went down in the Elite 8 with the broken leg. All of Shocker Nation was given the opportunity to sign a large banner/card to present to Ware’s mother. Debbie and Mike “Voice of the Shockers” Kennedy delivered it directly to Kevin’s mother who burst into tears, stating she was overwhelmed by the compassion of Shocker Nation, thinking of her son during this crucial game time. What can I say, Shox fans rule.
After photo ops with former players, attempting to recharge my dead phone, and talking with other friends and alumni, it was time to walk over to the Georgia Dome.
And then, it became very real. While our seats were not great, it was so emotional just to be there, not only at a Final Four semi-final, but with the Shockers. Shocker fans filled two sections, including the entire student section. We came to play. So did our team.
I could write an entire post about the game, how we dominated Louisville at times, took them out of their mental game, had their fans quiet and nervously seated in their section. I could voice my wishes that Armstead had not gone 0-6 during the first half, how Louisville seemed to turn up the pressure in the last 6 minutes of the game, and don’t get me started on the controversial jump ball. Instead, I will focus on the best moments of the experience.
How our fans stood prior to the inspiring National Anthem until the buzzer sounded. The building of emotion I felt in my chest all day, that subtle grin on my father’s face all afternoon, led to a culmination of emotions that erupted in hoarse voices cheering, screaming and yelling for our boys. When we took the lead, I suddenly realized I’d been jumping up and down along with the young woman next to me and that most of our section had been caught up in a euphoric dance of jumping in circles and not-quite-high-fiving-more-like-high-pawing-hugging of fellow Shockers. More than once, I found myself trying to double high-five my dad and the young woman next to me only to find in our excitement we couldn’t quite connect, almost slapping each other many times in the face, but didn’t care. What we were feeling was beyond description and more than once I wondered what it was like back home.
And our state of euphoria reached new heights when Cleanthony Early did this: http://www.heavy.com/news/2013/04/cleanthony-earlys-dunk-wichita-final-four-gif/
I cannot describe the rush, cannot pretend to convey what was happening in Shocker Nation. My father was yelling and trying to high-five everyone, I was practically jumping over my seat, all I could see was a sea of black and gold in motion, hear the roar, and for an instant thought “This is it.” But, I have spent too many years sitting beside my father whose knowledge of the game has been handed down to me and my siblings. This was Louisville. This was Rick Pitino. The run will come. Can we withstand it and all that it brings both mentally and physically.
And, my father was already thinking this. He turned to me and said, “Even if we should lose, it will be worth it to experience this, to feel this right now.” It was at that moment, Shocker Nation burst into song, “You don’t want to go to war with the Shockers. Don’t start no stuff, won’t be no stuff,” and it was then that the Syracuse fans turned to us and smiled, nodding their heads, giving us the thumbs up and clapping along with us.
We all know the outcome of the game, we all felt the loss, but it was different this time. We didn’t hang our heads, we didn’t cry, were not overcome with sadness. As my father said, sitting in our chairs absorbing the evening, we have made it known who we are, as a team and as a fan base. In one evening, things changed for WSU.
Did we stay for the Michigan/Syracuse game? Being college hoops fans, yes, we did. And I’m glad we did, not just to see another exciting game, but to be present for the accolades poured upon us by other fans, including Louisville. They congratulated us on an inspiring game, they thanked us for being such gracious fans and were impressed by not only our team, underrated all season, but by Shocker Nation and its boisterous presence. Michigan fans told us they were pulling for us, but in the end were relieved not to have to play us, as we a team like no other.
My father’s response to all of this? A calm smile and a shake of the head. That night I realized my father was waiting not only to experience the Final Four, but to experience something else, something more important. The validation of a program. He’s been a WSU fan for so long, he still at times refers to them as WU. And through all those ups and downs, he has always felt WSU has never received the respect it deserved, not just the program, but its fans, too. It was on the tips of the tongues of all who follow and love Shocker basketball, we have been validated. This team has done more for our program and university than any before in the school’s history. I hope they know this.
Our night ended at 3:00 am, after celebratory beers at Taco Macs, one of two Atlanta establishments who’d “adopted” WSU as place for its fans to meet, as well as back at our hotel with band members and longtime season ticket holders and former players. This was not a time to be sad or depressed, this was a time to celebrate a season and to begin the Road to the Final Four 2014.
In one night, despite the outcome, this trip became more than a check mark on a bucket list, it launched a new beginning for a program and its fans, and for my father, a sense of long overdue relief. We may have packed our bags for Atlanta, but Atlanta is sending us home with our tickets validated for a future none can imagine.