ST. LOUIS — Wichita State and Creighton basketball fans travel almost exactly the same distance to the Scottrade Center. The ride home, however, seems much longer for Shocker fans, who give up a few miles and eight Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championships to the Bluejays.
Imagine traveling with a Creighton fan.
Shocker fan Trent Oatman will again this week, driving his 1994 green Ford Econoline conversion van across Kansas and Missouri with five friends, one wearing blue.
“I swear I’m never going back,” he said, “because we always come home unhappy, and carrying a Creighton fan, to boot.”
The Valley’s biggest traveling parties will face off again this weekend with both schools bringing thousands of fans to Arch Madness. Top-seeded Creighton sold more than 4,000 all-session passes through the school. WSU sold more than 1,500 and thousands more will join them if their teams survive on Friday and Saturday.
“We call it adult spring break,” Creighton fan Bob Hogan said. “The games are important, but what goes on around the games down there is also important.”
Creighton fans drive south and east with unending optimism created by unmatched success since the tournament anchored in St. Louis in 1991. The Bluejays won it that season and kept on winning — eight times since and 11 total. For them, St. Louis is a place of great memories, confetti and celebration.
“St. Louis has always treated us well,” Creighton fan Pat Nipp said. “You’re going to see one hell of a lot of blue.”
Wichita State fans drive east carrying significant emotional baggage. They are weighed down by the memory of painful losses and a sense of preordained weirdness working against them. They slink home west on I-70 complaining about referees, timekeepers, MVC commissioner Doug Elgin and wondering what happened to the team that played so well up until the minute it entered St. Louis.
“I remember the car ride back last year,” Kelsey Coonce said. “It’s very quiet. Somber.”
Since 1991, the Shockers are 0-1 in the championship game — a 2010 loss to Northern Iowa. They failed to make it out of semifinal matchup six times since 2003. Four times, they came to St. Louis as the No. 1 or No. 2 seed and fell short of the title game.
“I will definitely go if they make it to Sunday,” Shocker fan Jeff Welch said. “I have faith, but at the same time it’s not been a great time only getting through Saturday once.”
WSU success in the Valley Tournament is limited to fans who remember Reagan and the miracles of cable TV and fax machines. The Shockers won in 1985 and 1987, both in Tulsa.
“We’re never 100-percent confident going to St. Louis,” Eddy Brotemarkle said. “We always have our hopes up. This could be the year.”
Hopes will be high in Oatman’s van, despite the presence of Creighton fan Dan Martin, a 1976 graduate who professes to root for the Shockers most games.
“He’s a gracious winner, and he knows we would roll him out the door if he wasn’t,” Oatman said. “He razzes us appropriately, and vice versa.”
Their routine is to drive Thursday to Boonville, Mo., stay the night and visit the casino, before finishing the final 147 miles on Friday. In St. Louis, they pay $20 for a parking spot close enough to the arena to tailgate before, during and after games. Martin’s inclusion in the group brings Bluejay and Shocker fans together in ways even Booker Woodfox can’t tear apart.
“It’s fun to go to St. Louis and watch the other games with no stress,” Welch said. “You can sit and enjoy it.”
Somebody is always going to win and somebody is always going to lose. The only unbeatens are the people who have a good time away from the arena. Some of Oatman’s group will visit the casinos on the Mississippi River. He prefers the blues bars. Martin’s favorite is the Broadway Oyster Bar.
Shocker fan Jason Ream is going as a student for the first time after trips with his family in the past. Landry’s Seafood is a regular stop. One year, they ate with Shocker radio voice Mike Kennedy and chatted with former Shocker Matt Braeuer. James Helms and his family will go to Zia’s on The Hill, an Italian restaurant, for spaghetti.
Hogan’s trips to St. Louis started as a guy thing and grew into a family trip. His daughter is flying in from San Francisco. Two of his children negotiated the tournament days off when they signed contracts for new jobs. On Thursday, the Bluejay fans pack Sundecker’s. The Big Bang piano bar — where the owners will set up a Creighton piano vs. a Bradley piano — is another favorite. Nipp looks forward to an annual dinner with Creighton president Rev. Timothy Lannon.
“All my best friends from college, every one of them comes,” Martin said. “People plan their year around it. That’s the great thing about the tournament — it’s the only guarantee there is.”
Despite the history, Shocker fans will loudly and proudly fill up thousands of seats on Friday. Surely, many of them will think, this is the season they are rewarded.
“I would enjoy that five-, six-hour drive home reliving the plays during the game, the moments,” Welch said. “Watching that celebration, cutting down the nets. Just being able to enjoy that would be great.”