More Than a Season

When the season ends, it always hurts. From November until April, we immerse ourselves in college hoops, specifically Shocker basketball, and when the season ends, well, it’s painful. The oomph to the solar plexus, the slight confusion, the reality check of everyday life. During basketball season, we live game day to game day, with each moment in between filled with scouting reports, Sports Center, newspaper and magazine articles, the usual workplace pre-meeting chat of last night’s game or the upcoming contest this weekend. Then, it ends. And, it hurts.

Even more so, this season. Not because of the one loss, not because of that final shot, not because it was Kentucky, and not because we knew the Shockers had so much more in them, that this team could’ve won a National Championship, but because this incredible, thrilling, almost surreal ride has come to an end. Forget the oomph to the solar plexus, this is like a kick to the windpipe. And why is it so painful? Why do I and numerous other Shocker fans feel lethargic and sad? As I said, I’m used to dealing with the aftermath of the close of a season, I know what to expect, I know it will take me a week or two to get my bearings, to finally stop clinging to the remnants of the season by watching highlight reels, reading past articles, viewing Facebook photos of games.

But, this year is different and I’m starting to understand why the pain is so unique. The season never truly ended, last year. The euphoria that swept campus and the city during the 2013 run to the Final Four never subsided even after the Shockers loss to Louisville in the semi-final. The validation that came from that game, that run, only sustained the buzz of anticipation and expectation for the next season, like the drone of a million bees it kept us all suspended until November where it settled inside Koch Arena and hummed louder with each victory. Eventually, it seeped out to campus and throughout the city until you could almost feel the buzzing from within, or at least I could, like a warm vibration of the soul urging you to carry the team mantra into everyday life by working, playing and living a little angrier.

We knew the season would be good,  that what happened in Atlanta was only a glimpse of what was to come, but never did we expect our beloved Shockers to go undefeated, to stand upon the precipice of college basketball history. Even my father, whom I steadily rely upon for basketball guidance admitted he “never saw this coming.” Our expectation of a winning season, an MVC conference title, the hope of eliminating the St. Louis curse and an MVC tournament championship was not just realized, it was slammed home on a platter of perfection. The buzz had become deafening.

And yet, we could still hear the naysayers. Sure, they had to shout long and hard to be heard, but we could still hear their whining, their dismissals, their bullying and desperate responses after every win. Their battle cry against Wichita State became redundant and embarrassing, especially when it became apparent those who cried the loudest and longest knew nothing of college basketball. Nada. These were the ones I speculated as young kids had picked the teams they thought were safe bets. Picking a power house or blue blood team guarantees a happy March, right? What I figured was a lot of these people were actually more angry at themselves or their teams mediocre seasons than they were at the Shockers.  It was just easier to take it out on the Shockers and their schedule rather than admit after all these years they’d possibly picked the wrong school. Ironically, their mean-spirited attacks only stirred the nest, increasing and uniting the hum of Shocker Nation.

From Selection Sunday to Sunday afternoons showdown with Kentucky, the excitement and pride of Wichita and Shocker Nation was near crescendo. I could feel it like a hundred cold and prickly goose bumps across my flesh every time a complete stranger said “Go Shox” to me in response to my ever-present Shocker gear. I could hear it in the flapping of a Wushock flag outside a business or earnestly from the window of a passing car. I could see it in the eyes of my father every time he shared a newspaper article or I brought him the latest Sports Illustrated featuring the Shockers or printed online article. And call me crazy, I could even taste it, like that first sip of a beer snatched from the bottom of an icy cooler after a long, hot day.

But as with any deafening roar, there is always imminent silence. I wasn’t there in the Scottrade Center or the local Emerson Biggins, but when the final buzzer sounded and our boys walked off the court, the silence fell upon our city like an invisible snowfall. It wasn’t that the world actually fell silent, but the buzz that had carried us for an entire year had suddenly stopped. And with the quiet came the pain.

That’s why this one hurts so differently. This pain is not from a five-month season, but a twelve-month season, a season that began when the Shockers defeated Ohio State to head to the Final Four. So, I’m preparing myself for a lengthy recovery, one that may take a month or two. I’ll reread the articles, watch the videos, view the photos, and know much of our patio and deck conversations over beer this summer will be spent reminiscing the season.

I’ll continue to follow the journeys of these incredible young men, those whose paths are changing, those who will stay to carry the weighty torch of what is now Shocker basketball, and the new  players just arriving to become one of the family. Shaq Morris recently tweeted, “The red shirt is off,” to which many followers responded with their hopes and urgings for the next season and his successful beginnings.

Wait, there it is. That sound. Can you hear it? I feel better already.

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My two cents

As I watched the students of Penn State marching in droves through their campus, I could only sigh. Heavily. I knew the announcement of Joe Paterno’s firing would result in chaos, you could sense this college community was on the verge of hysteria. The man they held aloft as the symbol of success, their father figure, their football icon, was falling from grace right behind the tanking of their once-esteemed university.

Being a sports fan, I know Joe Paterno, I know Penn State, I know the powerhouse of their football program. I’ve respected Paterno and I never imagined his career and this storied program would end in this manner. Never.

It disgusts me. There are no words to describe the horror I felt when I heard the allegations. Sandusky is a monster, a predator, and Penn State kept the monster hidden. Sandusky should’ve been arrested the very day he was witnessed assaulting a boy on campus. The university, its administration and the football staff, including Paterno, should’ve done everything to stop the monster, but they didn’t and they are all to blame. Penn State chose money and football over the priority of protecting innocent children.

As well, what are we teaching our children, our youth? It was obvious in those news reports of the riots on campus. Why weren’t these students rioting out front of Sandusky’s home, protesting the abuse of those young boys? Why weren’t they out there demanding answers from their institution, passionately advocating for the rights of those young boys?  Because as a society we place our sports figures on pedestals so high, we can’t bear it when they come plunging back to earth. These figures can do no wrong. And when they do make a mistake, we make excuses for them, place blame elsewhere. We tend to view these individuals as Gods, not humans doing a job related to athletics, they’re more than that, right?

Wrong. But, how do we change this perception? How do we stop this other monster? I don’t have the answers. All I know is Penn State has more work to do. There are young men out there whose lives have been forever ruined and someone, at long last, has to be held accountable and this includes the mighty JoePa.

Making school history: 29-win season and NIT championship

I’m extremely superstitious. Since March 16, I’ve worn the same outfit for every Shocker NIT game,  right down to my socks and shoes.

And I swore I would not post one word about the tournament. Not one. After the awful loss in the MVC, I decided not writing about the tournament run would be best. Save it all for last.

The Shockers are the 2011 NIT Champions. And for those pooh-poohing the NIT, especially the bitter fan who asked if a NIT championship meant WSU was the 69th best team in the nation, I have a few questions. Where’s your team? Are they still in post-season play? Are they making the Top 10 plays on Sportscenter? Are the cutting down any nets? Is your office closing early so it’s employees can make it to the arena to welcome home their championship team?

I didn’t think so.

Personally, the Shockers winning a national tournament on the hallowed ground of Madison Square Garden beats a final four run in Houston by a long shot. And what I love about the NIT is the chance for these teams to play at home to a boisterous, game-ready crowd. I’ve been to NCAA tournaments where barely half the arena is filled and the sounds from the pep band and cheer squads echo down deserted concourses. There was definitely none of that at Koch Arena on March 23.

And what about those Shocker fans? I admit I was pretty down after losing in the MVC and I even still held a tiny glimmer of hope the selection committee would reevaluate our season and give us a chance. With teams like UAB and Michigan State getting in the NCAA tournament, surely they could see WSU in the first four. So the NIT it was and I was okay with that, and apparently, so were the Shockers.

They dismantled Nebraska, played smart and tough against Virginia Tech, were loose but focused against College of Charleston, destroyed Washington State, and held more than their own against Alabama. And while other teams in Kansas beat WAC, Big 10, AEC, and Atlantic 10 teams only to be sent home much earlier than anticipated, the Shox checked off their own list: Big 12, ACC, Pac-10, SEC.  But unlike the others, there was no early plane ride home. The Shox will come home today to an arena filled with giddy Shocker fans, me and my father included.

What looked like a season ending on a note just slightly out of tune, not sour because how could it be sour with 25 wins, but just a little off-key without a conference title or MVC championship, has ended loud and long. These boys have made Shocker basketball history with a 29-win season and the school’s first NIT Championship. Their names will go down in the Shocker record books.

And they still got to dance. Maybe not at the “big dance,” but how many young men can say they threw down their own style of victory dance on the floor of the Garden. Not many.

Congratulations,  Wichita State Shockers! You have made us all very proud.

WuShock takes a tumble. Literally

When your fearless mascot takes a tumble down the arena stairs during the first half of the semi-finals in a tournament, call me superstitious but it’s game over. Not only did Wu fall, but he suffered what was thought to be a broken ankle. Turns out it’s a high ankle sprain, but nonetheless our Great Bundle of Wheat had to be carried out of the arena. And to make matters worse, the Shox soon fell to Indiana State and crushed all hope of an invite to the NCAA tournment.

Saturday afternoon exemplified an entire season. Quite possibly I should have listened to my father when the Shockers were picked to win the Valley, “Don’t get your hopes up, I don’t think they’re that good of a team.” Come on, Dad. Don’t be so pessimistic. This is our year. We have the pieces. We’re going all the way.

But with expectations so elevated, there was only one way for Shocker fans to truly go and that was down. And down. And down. Yes, one can argue a 25-7 record boasts of a winning season and it is, unless you’re in the Missouri Valley. As a so-called Mid-Major, a 25-7 record will get you a possible home game in the NIT. In comparison, Michigan State with a sorry record of 17-13 is still being considered a bubble team for the real dance. Seriously.

But that’s a whole other lament. With a record of 25-7, one expects a conference title, if not a tournament championship, but alas, the Shox brought home neither. What we suffered were four horrific home losses, a continuing saga of “will the real starting five please stand up”,  and a whole lot of head scratching.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my Shockers. But had I not let my own fantasies of circling the Shox on my NCAA bracket get in the way and listened to my dad, Saturday’s loss would not have hurt so darn bad. And hurt it did. All the way down to my black and gold soul. As a matter of fact, it still hurts. And if it hurts for me, I can’t imagine what those young men must be feeling.

My dad blames a lot of this season on coaching. Where we needed a true point guard, we had a trifecta of nervous point guards. Where we needed to keep our big men in the paint, we had big men pretending to be shooting guards and taking three’s. When we needed a real starting five, we had somewhat ten. And then, when a player was hot with their shot, covering their man, bringing energy to the floor, suddenly they were substituted by a player who’s highest stats of the game were those of turnovers.

See, I told you I was still upset. I’m sure when the pain subsides I’ll be able to look back on this season and remember the highlights. Moments like sweeping Creighton, including on their home court, the triple-OT win at home against Indiana State (I guess we should have seen this coming), the almost undefeated road record. Those were good times. Of course, the main highlight is always sitting with my dad in that arena, wearing our black and gold, and watching the boys warm up.

If WuShock can bear the pain, so can I.  We are Wheatshockers. We can and will endure and always come back stronger, even if it does take us a little while to bounce back after the storm.

Maybe Wu will let me borrow his crutches. Lord knows, I could use them.

Right where we want ’em

Yes, it’s taken me this long to get over the loss to Missouri State. Once again the Shox came out flat in the first half and their shining moments came too little, too late. I can’t figure it out. Was  their lackadaisical first-half attitude throughout the season a result of being picked to win the MVC  title at the beginning?Did this lead them to believe they would easily win over each MVC opponent? Surely not. More than half of our rotating ten have faced MVC opponents before. They are familiar with the buzzer beater woes of Creighton, the smothering defense of UNI and SIU. So why was it so tough to put two halves together?

I still think it’s because we played most of the season without a true point guard. Torre Murray is not a point guard. I know I’m not alone in this thinking. Forcing him to the point guard position has ruined him as a player. He now lacks confidence, an outside shot and he makes desperate decisions. This is not the same kid we could rely to win a game, to carry the burden of his team beyond the three-point line and knowingly take the final shot. He looks confused, almost terrified. And I can’t blame him. He is not a point guard and should never  have been forced to play the position until Demetric got his act together or Joe blossomed. Joe probably would’ve blossomed a lot sooner had he been given the full responsibility of leading his team on the court. My heart breaks for Torre. He tries so hard, he wants so much to redeem himself on that court. My hope is he finds a way during this tournament.

But what do I know, I’m no coach. Just a fan. A fan impatiently waiting for Friday evening at 6:05 and tip-off of our first game in the MVC tournament.

Some say we are right where we want to be. After all, the only way to get two MVC teams in the Big Dance was for one to win the conference title and another to win the tournament. We worked this out with MSU. You get to win at home for the title, we get to win on the road in St. Louis for the tournament title and automatic bid. A win-win.

Right where we want’em.

I hope they’re right.

Posted for good luck: me, Old Wu, and Dad in D.C. for the Sweet Sixteen.

This is it…the MVC title.

Today is the big day. The Shockers battle Missouri State for the MVC title. The game is at noon on ESPN2 and yes, I’m nervous. We have an opportunity to go undefeated on the road and win the championship outright. Plus this would give the Shox huge momentum going into the MVC tournament in St. Louis.

Senior night was special, as it always is. I always walk into Koch arena a little more observant of my surroundings on the final home game of the season. I try not to miss a thing, after all it will be nine months before I don the black and gold and cheer my Shockers in the arena. Note the end of that sentence…”in the arena.” My hope is to continue to cheer my Shockers from either a bar stool or, finances permitting, from an unfamiliar seat in an unfamiliar arena in the NCAA tournament.

And senior night this year was everything one could hope. I always shed a few tears on senior night. These young men have given their all for us fans, fought through injuries, doubts, and sent us into multiple frenzies over the past four years. And they’ve faced life obstacles we will never know. Some forget these are just young men in college, taking classes, meeting girls, hanging with friends, missing their family, who also happen to play basketball. They are not getting paid big money or rolling in endorsements. They live in dorm rooms, eat at the RSC, and stay up late doing homework.

They are just boys, but they become our boys. And it’s hard to let them go, to imagine next season without them. And it’s not just their playing and athleticism, or the fact they will leave gaping holes in our offense and defense, but Durley’s big smile, the way Blair lifts his eyes almost shyly to the crowd, Hatch’s on-court-off-court energy, and the wide eyes of Ellis as he acknowledges his family before he  takes the court.

The game on senior night was a classic battle between the Shox and the Jays. The much-hated Jays. And what better way to sweep them this season, for the first time since 1985, then a final bucket in the waning seconds by none other than Aaron Ellis. The arena erupted. The basketball Gods couldn’t have picked a better hero for our final home game.

So here we are. The final game of the regular season with the MVC title within reach. Missouri State beat us at home on January 9, 59-56. It’s time for us to return the favor.

Go Shox!

Superstitious Bundle of Wheat

Since I attended the KU/Missouri game at Allen Field House on Monday evening, my Shox lost at home to a very beatable SIU team and I came down with two days of the stomach flu. Needless to say, I will not be returning to Lawrence any time soon.

I’m totally superstitious. I paint my toenails orange during football season, gold during February and March. There are certain t-shirts and sweatshirts I do not wear on game day because they brought bad luck to my teams in the past. Even if that past was ten years ago, the item stays in the darkness of my closet come game day. I only drink Pepsi at Koch arena because the one time I switched to Dr Pepper, George Mason put a hurtin’ on my Shox. I play Sweet Home Chicago by the Blues Brothers before every playoff game. Twice. And if Jared had never put that awful Packer plate on my car, Green Bay would not be celebrating their Super Bowl victory. The list goes on.

Which is why I’m heeding the aftermath of my Allen Field House venture. But is was fun. I especially enjoyed the remarks, texts, and Facebook posts received by family and friends upon learning a Shocker was entering Jayhawk territory.

A co-worker, “YOU are going WHERE?”

Text messages from Steve B.: “You are not wearing black and gold, are you?” me: “No, but I am wearing a gray WSU sweater.”  steve: “Antoine Carr would be proud.”

Steve after the game: “Are you a Jayhawk fan, now?”  me: “Never.”

Facebook posts:  Natalie Olmsted No, I will not convert but I had a blast at Allen Field house.February 7 at 10:29pm

 Jj Barrientos You should not you are true black and gold with the Wu Shock nation, glad you enjoyed the evening in the Phog.

 Matt Bye Gross. Shower twice!

 Ingrid Mendoza thank god!
 Jeff Graber I think you should go to confession!!! Don’t do that again.     
     
Phone conversation w/ JJ during ride home in the Kansas blizzard: “Now I have proof. You went to a KU game and hell is freezing over.”  
                                         
No worries. Hell will not completely freeze over, I did shower twice, and I’m going to confession with black and gold rosary beads in hand. You don’t have to tell me, or prove to me, twice. As Stevie once sang, “Very superstitious, writing’s on the wall…”

Mid-week mumblings

The snow is snowing, the wind is blowing but I can weather the storm. I’ve got my hate to keep me warm…”

A blue hate. The blue of a Bluejay. A Creighton Bluejay.  My dislike for the Bluejays ranks right up there with the Green Bay Packers. And why? Because for years as a devoted Shocker fan I’ve endured the Dana Altman-Creighton legacy of buzzer beater wins and well, just plain beatings. And tonight, the Shox stumble into Omaha to face the Bluejays with  a whole lot stacked against them: a Shocker loss at home against MO. State; the fact the Shox haven’t won in Omaha since 1992; Creighton is coming home after two road wins; and it’s $1 beer and soda night at Sokol Arena.

Oh, and did I mention the fact that Creighton’s new coach and former UNI coach, Greg McDermott,  is 7-4 all-time against WSU, including 4-1 at home.  And Marshall is 2-5 against Creighton. Unlike Lovie Smith’s mantra of “beat Green Bay”, Marshall did not list “beat Creighton” as a top priority. And to think I was glad when Dana aka E.T. hit the road.

Which explains why I’m a little nervous about this game. After a loss to the Bears, we need this road win. Big time. And we need to beat Creighton. Once and for all. But in typical WSU vs Creighton style, it will be tough. It will be physical. It will be mental. It will be exhausting. And I’m hoping…exhilirating.

Tonight, I’ll don my “Your Mascot Tastes Like Chicken” t-shirt and just before game time review an old video of the last second three to beat Creighton in Koch Arena. In overtime. No time outs. February 14, 2006. My 40th birthday. What a present all wrapped in black and gold and delivered by Mattie, Sean, Kyle, Paul, and PJ.

Not sure I can handle an overtime situation tonight. But if we can beat Creighton at home, I’ll take it anyway the Shox decide to serve it.

Innovative bundles of wheat

Recently, I was forwarded a photo of the 1905 Wheatshocker football team. It was from an article in the Wichita Eagle about implementing two innovations of the football game: the “first and ten” and the forward pass.

Love this photo. These are the mighty Wheatshockers, now known as the  Shockers. While our football team at Wichita State University is currently known as the team “undefeated since 1986,” the year our program was axed, as well as the incredible tragedy befallen the 1970 Gold and Black, there is so much history behind the “angry bundles of wheat”(as Mr. Scott Ochs  refers to his former brethren).

That history includes the first night game ever held, with the field lit by 32 gas lanterns, courtesy of the Coleman Company. 28 lanterns were stationed along the sidelines  and two at each end zone. The year was 1905.

The same year the first forward pass was implemented during a Wheatshocker game, thrown by Bill Davis (’07) to right end Art Solter (’07).  In 2009, the Shocker alumni magazine ran a great story on that game.

This photo was sent courtesy of an alum whose grandfather is in the picture, first row and fourth guy from the left , next to the “mean-looking guy holding the football,” who just happens to be Bill Davis. Grandpa Glenn was just the first of many Shocker graduates in this particular family. You gotta love a legacy of Shockers.

And you have to appreciate the WSU football program and teams for the richness of their history and their pioneering attitude. While we no longer have a program, trust me our campus rings with the richness of that history. When the wind is just right, you can hear those gas lanterns swinging in the Kansas night air, the roar of the crowd, the brass of the band. Long live Shocker football.

Offensive

In this case, I’m using offensive as in disagreeable to the senses. Which is what WSU’s offensive rebounding was last evening against San Diego State. Offensive.

The Shox were out-rebounded 27-36. You don’t win games, especially on the road when you do not rebound. But the worst part of those 27 was the fact the Shox only had six offensive boards. Six. And only two in the first half. Two.

Offensive: stinky

Two offensive rebounds is like the players went down the court, took a shot, missed, then just handed the ball to the Aztecs. In comparison, the Aztecs had seven offensive boards in the first half. I believe at one point, the television screen flashed the statistic that SDS was averaging three chances per offensive possession. While we were one and done on most possessions, the Aztecs were allowed to try, try, try again.

Now, I give credit to the Aztecs. They are fast. They are athletic. And they remind me of a George Mason team who took the NCAA tournament by storm in 2006, running over teams, BIG teams, including the Shockers. (On a side note, I do hope the Aztecs fans are much better behaved than the Patriot faithful, who threw stuff and yelled obscenities at Shocker fans during the Sweet Sixteen game in D.C. I should know. I was there and a recipient of the nastiness).

That said, while it is still very early in the season, San Diego State shows promise. And hunger. They are 8-0, while the Shox are 5-2. I still have faith in my Shockers. They also show promise. There are the signs. But to win a conference title and an invite to the Madness, a team has to rebound. A team has to give itself more than one chance. More than two.

Let’s hope next game, offensive will equal aggressive. Go Shox!