SACRAMENTO, Calif. – You know that Washington State University logo?
The one that spells out WSU and seemed to be everywhere in the Inland Northwest recently?
It’s also the face of a Cougar, and if you look closely enough you’ll swear it’s smiling. Just like the school’s basketball fans.
Sure they were discouraged by Saturday’s 78-74 double-overtime loss to Vanderbilt in the second round of the NCAA tournament. After all, it cost the school a chance to play in the East Region finals in East Rutherford, N.J., and extend the winningest season in WSU history, an honor it shares with the 1940-41 Cougars.
But still …
“We’re a little sad; it was a sad game,” said Kathy Schell, a Cougar by marriage but a fan by choice. “We’re all disappointed, but it’s a young team. We only have one starter who is a senior (Ivory Clark) so there is always next year.”
And she’s not alone in her optimism.
“It’s disappointing, but not devastating,” said Jim King, a 1980 WSU graduate who lives in Snoqualmie, Wash. “We had a good run. It was a lot of fun, and we’re still proud of them.
“We lose Ivory, and that will be a big loss, but everyone else will be back next year with this experience under their belts. They’ll be OK, because these guys have a lot of character.”
Even before the game started, King was displaying an optimism endemic among the Palouse faithful.
“If we lose, it’s OK because I’m a Cougar, and our expectations are not high … wait, I shouldn’t be saying that,” King said, laughing. “But it’s not a do-or-die thing. We’re not Huskies. We’re not going to – as I say, we don’t eat our young.
“We’re happy that we are fortunate enough to have Derrick (Low) and Tony (Bennett) and all the coaches we have. They are doing the best job they can. Hey, it’s a bunch of kids who probably shouldn’t be winning, but they are.”
But they couldn’t on Saturday, and Schell saw a reason why.
“They played really well in the first half,” she said. “In the second half it seemed Vanderbilt played so physical and the referees didn’t call it, from my perspective.
“We got a little rattled,” she said before recovering her positive outlook, “but it was a great game and they played hard.”
Kathy Schell’s husband, Dale, is a WSU graduate. His older brother Gary lives in Pullman, but they were all gathered in the Arco Arena parking lot near their SUV before the game. Dale and Kathy live in Walnut Creek, Calif., and try to attend all the WSU bowl games. And now they were at the NCAA basketball tournament.
How big a Cougar fan is Dale?
When he turned 40, his co-workers didn’t decorate his office in black, but in purple, because – according to Kathy – they knew it would bother him more.
Now she’s a Coug fan, but “not like they are,” she said pointing at her husband and brother-in-law.
“The first time I went to Pullman, I think my comment (to Dale) was ‘the whole town is decorated like your house’ because there was Cougar stuff everywhere, and that’s how their house was.”
Though she graduated from Cal State Hayward, she sees herself as a Coug, and after the loss she was able to articulate why.
“They play really hard, and they are a lot of fun to watch. Those boys play their heart out,” she said of the 26-8 team. “You catch the news and the sports, and they don’t get the attention they deserve.”
King, 49, has owned WSU football season tickets for 27 years. He bought basketball season tickets four years ago, when Dick Bennett arrived on the Palouse.
“I’m the type of guy who has to be there an hour before the game,” he says. “I’m nervous and antsy then, but once the game starts, I’m OK. When they win, I’ll just go, ‘yea.’ “
He didn’t get the chance after the double-overtime defeat.
But he still was able to go “yea” about the team’s future.
“This team was in every game it played until the end, except the Utah game,” King said, citing an early season 69-55 loss in Salt Lake City. “That’s got to help us next season.”
A season he’s already thinking about.
“When you’re a Cougar,” King said, “you always look forward to next year.”