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Road-tripping to the tourney

Thu., March 15, 2007

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – When your school hasn’t appeared in the NCAA tournament since you were a third-grader, a 15-hour drive seems pretty short.

At least that’s how a group of Washington State University students saw it as they were deciding how to spend their spring break.

A dozen juniors and seniors packed into two SUVs on Tuesday morning – one almost as old as they are – and drove to California to support their Cougars.

After what they’ve seen the past four years in Pullman, it’s worth it.

“My freshman year, before we got Dick Bennett (as coach), we would go an hour and half early to games and get in the front row,” Tim Brandel, a senior studying to be a teacher, said of his Cougar basketball experiences.

In his three years previous to this one, WSU was a combined 32-52, leading more to Cougar-ignoria instead of Cougar-mania. But times have changed.

“Now, we started camping on Monday night for the UCLA game,” Brandel said of WSU’s penultimate Pac-10 Conference game on a Thursday night a couple weeks ago. “We have to get there two, three days in advance to get front-row tickets.

“Now I bring a tent down to get in the front row, which is really fulfilling, considering.”

Fulfilling as in WSU posting a 25-7 overall record, finishing second in the Pac-10 Conference and being ranked as high as ninth in the nation.

And, let’s not forget, the Cougars’ first NCAA tournament berth since 1994. Which is why the students are in Sacramento.

They got here in Brandel’s 1987 Suburban – “It gets about 10 and a half miles per gallon,” Brandel said – and a 1996 Jeep Cherokee, driven by fellow senior Matt Meyer.

A couple of gas stops, a trio of bathroom breaks, three rooms at a Sacramento Super 8, and this pack of Cougars was set.

They gathered at the team’s practice session Wednesday in Arco Arena, site of the Cougs’ first-round game today against Oral Roberts.

The group greeted WSU’s entrance on the floor by spelling out Washington State Cougars before breaking out in boisterous cheering.

“It’s great,” guard Kyle Weaver said while signing autographs for local children after practice. “We’re glad they’re here.”

But crimson and gray aren’t the only colors in Arco. There are plenty of fans in Gonzaga jerseys and sweatshirts as well. Though the apparel is the same, many of the fans are not ones you might see in McCarthey Athletic Center.

Katie Davis never misses a Gonzaga game on television, according to her father, Dan. But they’ve never been able to get tickets in McCarthey to watch her favorite team.

So when a relative who is in the Oral Roberts band offered to get them tickets, the Davises packed up, left Priest Lake, Idaho, and headed to Sacramento.

“(Thursday) night is the first time we will have seen Gonzaga play in person,” Dan said.

“I’m excited,” said Kari, Katie’s mom.

As for Katie, she said she enjoyed watching the Zags’ practice. And she can’t wait for today’s game, though the Davises have tickets for every game in the subregional.

“She just enjoys basketball,” Dan said of his daughter.

So does the Cougar group. No matter the time.

On Wednesday, the starting time for today’s Washington State game vs. Oral Roberts was moved up 10 minutes to 11:30, meaning the WSU fans have to get started that much earlier this morning.

“Nothing’s stopping us from getting excited,” Brandel said. “We’ll go to bed at 2 o’clock in the morning, but we’ll be up awake by 9 and we’ll be ready. There’s no doubt about that.

“I’ve gone through too much not to be loud and proud about this game.”


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