At night, when most people 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 north of McCarthey Athletic Center, where tonight the Zags will host St. Mary’s College of California. The winner will take sole possession of first place in the West Coast Conference.
Stakeholders in this temporary tent city will get first crack at seats when arena doors open today.
“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.
On Sundays before home games, the university releases 1,200 free, general admission tickets to students, distributed on a first-come basis. For some of the most important games, that’s when tents go up: The first ones in on game night get the best seats.
The students face challenges, including the cold. Overnight temperatures have dipped to single digits. But the university laid down heavy-duty extension cords so students could use portable 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 camped 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 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 more layers on top. Gloves, hat and hood were close by.
Their tent was decorated on top with six “Happy Birthday” balloons in honor of a friend who turned 19 on Wednesday. Gill said they planned to go out for dinner to celebrate while two of their tent-mates stayed behind to hold their place in line.
The tradition of camping in line for big games dates 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.
After students get their tickets, they hurry to the line on the north side of the athletic center. Students take numbers that preserve their spots in line as long as they occupy them. Teams of students often work out schedules for shifts, including the overnight hours.
Each tent is limited to seven people, one of whom must be in the tent or a short distance away at all times.
The tents have to be cleared away before the doors open at McCarthey tonight, but students said the tent city may well reappear later tonight to hold the first spots in line for seats at Saturday’s game against the University of San Diego.
As part of the tradition, basketball team members and Coach Mark Few dropped by Wednesday to mingle with campers. A sign on one tent called the encampment “Fewville.”
“I talked to Few for like five minutes or so,” McCaffray said. “It was pretty cool.”
Several Zags fans dropped by to cook burgers one day this week. The Kennel Club handed out pizzas.
But the tent camp 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.”