WNIT game allows fans to display school spirit

Heather Mangan

Heather Mangan

SDSU leaders often, sometimes too often, use the phrase, “It’s a good day to be a Jackrabbit” to dignify a special event or announcement. Although we would like to think every day is a good day to be a Jackrabbit, some are just better than others. March 17 was one of those days.

Anyone wearing blue and yellow couldn’t hold back the SDSU pride as the women’s basketball team beat Illinois, 61-48, in the second-round Women’s National Invitation Tournament game and advanced to the third leg of the competition.

Before it even started, the game was designated historical. It was the first time an SDSU team competed in Division-I postseason team play and the first time a transition team made the tournament. The Collegian chose to extend coverage beyond the normal game story and assigned me to report on the craziness that is WNIT.

Here are my notes from a game that won’t be soon forgotten:

The excitement of the game drew crowds to the door hours before the 7 p.m. tip-off. The majority of the line began to form between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., but fans came prepared for the wait. There were even scooters and a bean-bag toss.

One group of college males stood outside the west entrance in the 36-degree weather wearing gym shorts and a layer of blue and yellow paint. They wouldn’t tell me how long they had been outside, but by the way they were shivering and hugging their bare chests, I could tell it had been awhile.

“It’s the biggest game in SDSU history,” said Jackson Rentschler, a business economics sophomore. “WNIT will know who the Jacks are by the end of the tournament.”

As I was made my way to the designated media entrance, I noticed guard Ashlea Muckenhirn walking to the HPER from her Young Hall room. When she got closer to the door, students erupted into whoops and hollers like she was a rock star.

Inside, the ticket takers assumed position and the University Police Department officers took their posts. The UPD usually staffs four officers for home games, but three extra UPD and three Brookings Police Department officers were recruited to help with the post-season game.

When the clock struck 5:30 p.m., Associate Athletic Director and former women’s coach Nancy Neiber gave the official signal and the crowd was unleashed. Hordes of students rushed through the door like a group of moms in a toy store the day after Thanksgiving. Once through the turnstile, fans sprinted to the student section. Ten minutes later, that section was full.

As I watched seats fill, I noticed a familiar smile. She said she would be here if the team made it to the WNIT, and Peggy Miller doesn’t like to break promises.

Miller, former SDSU president, has been living in Florida since her retirement in December 2006, but made flight arrangements as soon as she heard SDSU received a WNIT berth. She won’t leave until the Jacks are defeated.

She said all this while showing me her Jacks gear: The #1 jersey she was given as a parting gift during the Dec. 9 women’s game against Southern Illinois and the 2003 Women’s NCAA Division-II Championship ring the Jacks earned.

Later in the evening, I would see a similar ring on Jacks Head Coach Aaron Johnston, sparkling against the arena lights.

On my way back to the media table, I saw another famous face: Sen. John Thune.

“This is a very exciting day for South Dakota,” said Thune, who was in South Dakota for a few days. “There is a real sense of pride when a team does as well as the Jacks have done this season.”

Eventually Frost was full of people spilling into the aisles. Recorded attendance, based on ticket sales, was 5,719. The arena hasn’t been that full since Feb. 28, 2004-the last time the University of South Dakota played there. That was also a women’s-men’s double-header.

At about 6 p.m., 1,500 blue and yellow balloons were given to fans and became a way to distract opponents.

“They’re all right, but they’re no cowbell,” Rentschler said.

In the southwest corner of the arena was a small section reserved for fans in red. Chris Leese, an Illinois fan, said the university chartered a bus to Brookings, but only 29 made the nine-hour bus ride. Associate Athletic Director Rob Peterson estimated the team had 100 total supporters in the stands.

Once the game started, the energy grew with every basket, every call. Sometimes the environment was so surreal, I forgot I was in Brookings.

The game’s intensity peaked at the three-minute mark when Muckenhirn’s easy bucket put the Jacks up by nine. The entire arena flooded with clapping, stomping and screaming for the remainder of the game. For the first time, a solid lead had been established and the winner was evident.

Those three minutes were perfect. You could barely hear the buzzer that finalized the game.

Before the post-game press conference, I spoke to SDSU President David Chicoine. His grin reminded me of a child’s on Christmas day.

Jackrabbit fans shared his giddiness when officials announced that SDSU would host round three. SDSU fans will have a chance March 23 to out-do themselves.

For some reason, I don’t think it will be a problem.

#1.883613:2062951283.jpg:fans2HPER.jn.jpg:Diehard Jackrabbits fans stand outside the HPER March 17 waiting for the SDSU/Illinois game.:#1.883612:2942120548.jpg:Mangan, Heather(chicken).jpg:Heather Mangan: