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Gonzaga students camp out for prime seats

Gonzaga University freshman Eric Williams, left, welcomes Sean Damon into a tent outside the McCarthey Athletic Center on Jan. 28, 2009. They were occupying one of about 40 tents where students are waiting in line for a seat for the Gonzaga/St Mary's basketball game on Thursday evening. Williams was catching an episode of the TV show "House" on his computer over the Internet.  (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

At night, when most people in Spokane have retreated to the warmth of their homes, a hardy corps of Gonzaga University students huddles in a small tent city, participants in a ritual that has become an honored part of the Bulldog basketball scene.

On Wednesday, about 40 dome-shaped tents were clustered on a lawn on the north side of McCarthey Athletic Center, where the Zags play host Thursday night to St. Mary’s College of California. The winner will take possession of first place in the West Coast Conference.

Stakeholders in this temporary tent city get first crack at seats when arena doors open Thursday.

“It was kind of cold, but we had enough blankets,” said Emily Walker, a freshman from Juneau, Alaska, who was occupying the 14th tent in line.

As soon as the university released tickets for the game, Walker said, she and a friend ran off to rent a tent from outdoor supply store while other friends held their place.

Temperatures ranging from the single digits to teens overnight have given them more reason to persevere.

The university laid heavy-duty extension cords so the students could use portable electric heaters and power their laptops. At least one tent had a television.

Going from tent to tent to find the warmest spot and make friends was a bigger draw.

“I’m having a lot of fun with it,” said freshman Todd McCaffray, of Seattle. “It’s pretty loud. It’s kind of hard to sleep sometimes. Some people are trying to have fun with it. See what tent’s warm.”

Allison Nowadzky, a freshman from Castle Rock, Colo., and a dozen of her dormitory friends were camping in a pair of tents near the front of the line. She had an electric heater running as she read “Backpack Literature” for her English class on Wednesday. With the sun shining and lots of cold weather gear - sleeping bag, a “ton of blankets,” and a futon pad for insulation – she was toasty, she said.

Her companion, Kristin Gill, a freshman from Seattle, was dressed in two pairs of sweats, two pairs of socks and multiple layers of clothes on top. Gloves, hat and hood were kept close by.

Their tent was decorated on top with six “Happy Birthday” balloons in honor of their other friend, Aubrey Giordano, who turned 19 on Wednesday. Gill said they were going out for dinner to celebrate while two of their tentmates stayed behind to hold their place in line until they returned.

The tradition of camping in line for big games dates back to 2000, the year after Gonzaga went to the Elite Eight quarterfinals of the NCAA national tournament.

Rules have evolved over the years under the guidance of the Kennel Club’s student board and the university.

On Sundays prior to home games, the university releases 1,200 tickets to students for free on a first-come basis. As a result, tent lines may form for the first chance at the Sunday ticket releases for top matchups.

As soon as students get their tickets, they hurry to the north side of the athletic center venue, where a new line forms for the Thursday game. Students take a number, which gives them their spot in the tent line as long as they continue to occupy it. The teams normally work out schedules for shifts, including the cold overnight hours.

Each tent is limited to seven participants, one of whom must be in the tent at all times, or a short distance away.

The tents have to be cleared away prior to the doors opening at McCarthey on Thursday, but students said the tent city may well reappear later that night to hold the first spots in line for seats at Saturday’s game against the University of San Diego.

As part of the ritual, the team and Coach Mark Few dropped by to mingle with the campers. A sign on one of the tents called the encampment “Fewville.”

“I talked to Few for like five minutes or so, it was pretty cool,” McCaffray said.

To keep the campers going, several unnamed Zags fans dropped by to cook burgers one day this week. The Kennel Club handed out pizzas.

But this isn’t about eating and parties; it’s about a game between two nationally ranked teams - St. Mary’s at No. 22 and GU at No. 20.

“It’s St. Mary’s,” McCaffray said. “They’re about the next best team in the conference. We’ve got to have good fan support, cheer on our team, get our team pumped up, and they appreciate us being out here now.”

Mike Prager can be reached at (509) 459-5454 or by e-mail at