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Gonzaga alumni share in the revelry at Zags’ tourney site

UPDATED: Fri., March 17, 2017, 11:46 p.m.

Gonzaga Bulldog fans come alive when their basketball team does, in the second half Thursday, Mar. 16, 2017 in the Hemmingson Center on the Gonzaga University campus during the first round game in the NCAA tournament. After a slow start, the Bulldogs inched away from the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, a game shown on multiple screens in the Hemmingson Center. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Bulldog fans come alive when their basketball team does, in the second half Thursday, Mar. 16, 2017 in the Hemmingson Center on the Gonzaga University campus during the first round game in the NCAA tournament. After a slow start, the Bulldogs inched away from the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, a game shown on multiple screens in the Hemmingson Center. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

SALT LAKE CITY – Jen Hansel was on her way to Amsterdam from her home in Denver when she found herself stuck in the Salt Lake City airport for a seven-hour layover.

So she made a quick detour to the Vivint Smart Home Arena.

Earlier this week it was announced that Gonzaga would be playing at the home arean of the Utah Jazz for the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The early game time for the Zags’ first game against South Dakota State fit nicely between Hansel’s flight schedule.

“The game got scheduled here and I was like, ‘I got to go,’ ” said Hansel, who graduated from Gonzaga five years ago. “It’s way better than sitting in the airport.”

So as soon as Hansel landed in Salt Lake City on Thursday morning, she scurried downtown for Gonzaga’s pregame social to meet up with other GU alumni who came to Utah to support the Zags. And she found quite a few of them.

Roughly 100 GU alumni were gathered for brunch inside The Grand Hall with the Gonzaga pep band and cheerleaders before the opening matchup. Hansel immersed herself immediately in a group of alumni that had left Gonzaga just a couple years after she did.

Tom Scott, Kaitlin Pallai and Laura Winje made room for Hansel at their table. All of them seemed to be deliriously excited about going to the Zags game that afternoon after driving all night from their home in North Dakota.

Scott, who drove for the majority of the night, sat quietly back in his chair, working up some energy before heading to Vivint Smart Home Arena.

“He’s on Red Bull No. 3,” Winje cracked.

It wasn’t long before the group exchanged stories from their years at Gonzaga, and from their exciting nights inside the Kennel.

“Being in the student section was awesome,” Winje said.

But getting tickets for that student section was never quite as awesome.

Ashley Clayes, a Utah resident who graduated from Gonzaga in 2014, recalled one of her most memorable moments from basketball season at Gonzaga – Tent City.

During her first year at GU, Clayes remembered sleeping in her tent on campus with other students, waiting for the tickets to the Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s game to be distributed the following morning.

“It was probably like 20 degrees and the wind was blowing at like 50 miles per hour,” Clayes said. “We used to put a space heater in our tent because it was so cold.”

But putting up with the frigid air for a night was always worth it.

“We got front row on ESPN,” Clayes said.

Being inside the Kennel is nothing like any other venue – at least that’s what Nick Winstead said. The 2014 Gonzaga graduate, who now works as a TV sports reporter in San Francisco, came to Utah’s capital this week to see his Zags continue their march through the Big Dance. He said he misses watching the Zags inside the McCarthey Athletic Center and being crammed in a section of rambunctious students.

“It’s a small venue, but as soon you step in you would never know that because it’s so loud,” Winstead said. “The students create so much energy throughout the course of the game. I mean, the students literally do not sit down.”

The local social even attracted fans from Spokane.

Janelle Kraft, who left Gonzaga in 2005, flew from the Lilac City to Salt Lake City earlier this week with her family to watch the Zags take on their first two opponents. She wasn’t going to miss out on what could be another memorable postseason.

When she was a freshman in 1999, the Zags barely pulled off a win over Florida that sent Gonzaga to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history.

“I still remember running out of Catherine/Monica (Hall) when the team won,” Kraft said. “We were just running over to the DeSmet (Hall) screaming. It was just so exciting.”

She’s hoping the Gonzaga students this year will get to experience that historical moment in the NCAA Tournament that she got to experience nearly two decades ago.

“Once you have that experience … it just sticks with you and you’re hooked,” Kraft said.


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