Friday, October 24, 2014

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57º F (14º C)

The ‘Sixth Man’ Gears Up for Saturday’s ’Hoos vs. ’Cuse Faceoff

Lucky socks. Leaky boots. Big signs. And may the “true” orange win. University of Virginia students are getting into the pre-game excitement surrounding Saturday’s big basketball game against Syracuse University.

This season has been a joyride for fans of U.Va.’s surging men’s basketball team, which will take on the fourth-ranked Orangemen on Saturday at 4 p.m. in front of a sold-out crowd at the John Paul Jones Arena. At stake: the regular-season championship of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

With U.Va.’s victory over Miami Wednesday, the team chalked up its 17th consecutive ACC home victory, breaking a school record set from 1980 to 1982, when the team was led by Hall-of-Famer Ralph Sampson; celebrated head coach Tony Bennett’s 100th win with the Cavaliers; and finally was able to look forward to a chance to clinch the ACC title.

Ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press poll, the Cavaliers won their school-record 15th ACC game of the season and extended their overall winning streak to 12 straight games Wednesday, its longest ACC win streak since the 1981-82 campaign.

With history-making achievements like these, the team’s success is supercharging the climate around Grounds, as fans put their game faces on for Saturday’s matchup.

Syracuse was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country before suffering its first defeat of the season on Feb. 19. A Virginia victory would clinch the regular-season championship with one game to play; a Syracuse win would pull the Orangemen into a tie for first place and give them the tie-breaker for the top seed in the upcoming ACC Tournament, which, it should be noted, crowns the league’s official champion.

“It’s a big game not only for our program – the players and coaches – but also for our great fans, who have supported us through some tough seasons,” said Craig Littlepage, U.Va.’s director of athletics. “So many have been supportive and have been patient as Coach Bennett put the pieces together to bring the program to the heights reached thus far this year.”

Haider Arshad, a fourth-year student in the McIntire School of Commerce and president of Hoo Crew, U.Va’s student fan organization, said, “In my eyes, every student at the University is a member of ’Hoo Crew. We found a way to keep everyone involved in the process [as our record improves] and help create one of the most powerful student sections in the country.”

While ’Hoo Crew welcomes all students, a dedicated subset attends every home game and travels to away games as well. These students, who sit behind the visiting team’s bench during home games, are excited for a game that could define the season.

“U.Va. is always the forgotten team of the ACC,” third-year computer science major Robert Petri said. “Everyone focuses on Duke and [the University of North Carolina]. We’re hoping to change that. The excitement level is doubled when you think about the ACC title basically being decided by this game.”

Third-year student Emma Cohen, who is majoring in political philosophy, policy and law, said, “I’m so excited [for Saturday’s game.] I can’t remember ever being this pumped for a game … and I’ve been a Virginia fan since birth!”

Nicknamed “Emma to the End” for her refusal to leave any Virginia game until the final buzzer sounds, Cohen plans to arrive hours before tipoff on Saturday to seek a good spot in line. “I want to get as close to the action as possible,” she said.

For many fans, the preparation started well before game day. Third-year student Dylan Fogarty, an economics and biology major, said he requested this upcoming Saturday off from work two months ago to ensure that he would be at the JPJ arena.

“I’ve been spending days making signs and ‘big heads’ for the upcoming game,” Fogarty said, referring to the giant blown-up pictures the students hold aloft to distract opposing free-throw shooters. The new signs “should get some laughs from the announcers and help the students get more pumped,” Petri said.

Logan Dickinson, a second-year in the College, is known as “Sign Girl.” “I always bring a poster to support my friend from home who is on the team, Evan Nolte,” she said, who started the practice in high school.

Many of these signs have brought attention to the Virginia fan section. “I think it all started last year with the Duke game,” Arshad said. “We did faces of [Blue Devil coach] Mike Krzyzewski and that got national attention. It got our name out there and got the student body excited.”

The recognition led to ’Hoo Crew’s candidacy for “best student section” in national online vote. The winner receives bragging rights and $10,000 for a general scholarship fund. Voting ended last week and the winner will be announced “any day now,” Arshad said.

Just like players, fans have their own sacred rituals. “’Hoo Crew members are actually fairly superstitious,” Dickinson said, who always wears the same pair of well-worn boots to games. “The one time I didn’t wear them to a game this season, we lost to [Virginia Commonwealth University],” she said. Her mom tried to get her to throw them away, but Dickinson’s not risking it.

Fogarty, too, feels that footwear makes a difference. “I usually wear these long orange socks on game day, which seem to have been giving us good luck,” he said.

With nearly half of U.Va.’s student body requesting tickets for Saturday’s game, it is expected that the nearly 2,400 students who received tickets will fulfill their role as the “sixth man.”

“We’re expecting fans to make JPJ as loud as possible,” Petri said. “We’re hoping that fans will be standing the entire game, especially those in the lower sections. It should get pretty crazy because based on our performance lately, it should be a close game.”

Indications are that this season’s student spirit may have some staying power. The U.Va. Class of 2018 Facebook page for admitted students has spent the past month cheering on the team remotely. As one incoming student noted, “U.Va. basketball hasn’t lost a game since our acceptance. I guess we’re good luck.”

It’s not just students who create the environment at JPJ. The game is sold out, meaning that nearly 12,000 non-student seats also will be filled. A quick check of Stubhub, a ticket resale site, found listings for tickets at prices ranging from $269 to more than $1,000.

“The only other home game in recent years I can remember [generating] this much buzz was the opening of the John Paul Jones Arena versus Arizona in November of 2006,” Littlepage said. “We need a packed, loud and enthusiastic JPJ on Saturday.” 

While the team feeds off the crowd‘s energy, the relationship is clearly mutual. “The crowd cheers louder and everyone gets into the game more when a player, such as Justin Anderson, gestures for more noise,” Dickinson said.

Petri agreed, “Justin Anderson has been a huge driving force behind getting the fans hyped and on their feet.”

Fans without tickets are planning to gather for private events like “’Hoos vs. ’Cuse” and “May the TRUE orange win” (both schools’ teams sport orange and blue). Observatory Hill Dining Hall will screen the game for unlucky students without tickets, and the UVaClub of Charlottesville will host a similar event at Alumni Hall. The Corner will likely be crawling with fans in the “true” orange.

As if the game needed any more hype, it also marks the last home game for three fourth-year players.

“The game’s importance also should be viewed in the context of the last home game for our fourth-year players, Thomas Rogers, Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris,” Littlepage said. “These students have been exemplary representatives of the University and our athletics program.” Harris and Mitchell, members of Bennett’s first full recruiting class, were both All-ACC selections last season.

Arshad and ’Hoo Crew Vice President Stevie Farmer, both fourth-years, will also be saying their own goodbyes Saturday. “I don’t think it’s quite hit me that it’s my last game,” Arshad said. “Definitely Saturday evening just being in John Paul Jones Arena, it will finally come full circle.” 

Win or lose, though, the Cavaliers’ season will continue. “There is still a lot of basketball to be played with the postseason upcoming,” Littlepage said. “There are also goals that go beyond having a shot at the ACC regular-season title. The ACC and the NCAA Tournaments are additional chances to pursue championships.”

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