ATLANTA — Way back three weeks ago, when the Wichita State Alumni Association couldn’t get the necessary 107 fans interested in a charter flight to Salt Lake City to watch the Shockers play in the NCAA Tournament’s opening rounds, these fans went anyway.
They drove all night across Kansas and Colorado. They flew out of Kansas City to save money, making nonsensical, time-consuming connections along the way. They got there however they could, raiding their vacation budgets and putting their Wichita responsibilities on hold.
In total, there were no more than 200 of them – boosters, retirees, and a few young families on a budget – and they filled a tiny sliver of Salt Lake City’s EnergySolutions arena with black and gold. Many of them lost their voices, screaming loud enough to make up for the fan deficit as the Shockers beat Pittsburgh, then No. 1 seed Gonzaga.
Now, thousands of dollars and miles later, many members of the core group of fans – who followed the team from Salt Lake City and then to Los Angeles – are making their way to Atlanta for the Final Four.
By the end of the tournament, they will have been in three states, three different climates and every U.S. mainland time zone.
They will have chanted the Shocker War Chant a dozen times, attended half a dozen pep rallies, and collected more hotel shampoo bottles than will fit in the average travel kit.
And will they ever have stories to tell, memories to keep.
“This is what we do,” said Sherl Weatherbee, who along with her husband, Tony, has been with the team since the first game in Salt Lake City. “We just follow them until they’re done and hope it goes on forever. Like this time.”
Among the core group of fans who got to see every game along the way were buddies John Markwell and Dick Dameron, both longtime fans. Markwell said he hasn’t missed a single Shockers game – at home or on the road – in four years.
The pair – who became friends when they would see each other in the Koch Arena stands – were signed up for the charter plane that never got off the ground, so at the last minute, they decided to hit the road. They left Wichita for Salt Lake City at midnight on the eve of the Shockers’ opening game against Pittsburgh.
When the team won both Salt Lake City games, the two decided that their epic road trip must not end. They made their way to Los Angeles by car, stopping in Las Vegas for an evening at the Golden Nugget casino. Markwell found a Laundromat; Dameron bought new skivvies.
The trip continues, though the pair has separated for their Atlanta journey. Markwell and his wife are traveling together, and Dameron is on one of the alumni charters landing in Atlanta on Friday.
“For me, this is the culmination of 46 years going to games,” said Dameron, 67. “I’ve always supported them, win or lose, but the dream was always the Final Four.
“Now that it’s happened, it’s hard to express in words what it’s like. Seeing it come to fruition is mind-boggling.”
One of the more noticeable members of the group is Rick Totten, a fan so dedicated that he wears gold-and-black striped overalls to every game – earning himself a lot of time on various arena fancams.
Totten, a farmer from Oxford, said he grew up listening to Shocker games on the radio, his interest in basketball sparked by a coach in his hometown. He remembers watching members of the1965 Final Four WSU team board the plane when they left Wichita.
The travel has been expensive, Totten said, and being away from his farm has been difficult. He has a rough idea in his brain of how much he and his wife, Kaffy, have spent so far – on flights, hotels, food, game tickets and overalls (they were $50 online).
But he rationalizes it all by reminding himself that his wheat crop is looking good this year and that Shocker vacations are his only vacations. Besides his family and his farm, he said, they’re the most important thing to him.
“I’m a homebody, so I would’ve never done any of this if it hadn’t been for the Shockers,” he said. “They’ve taken me places I otherwise would never go.”
The hardest part of being a member of the original Salt Lake City group, Weatherbee said, is watching the bandwagon fill up all around her.
At the beginning of the tournament, many of the fans she knows didn’t want to make the trip. Salt Lake City was far away and travel was expensive. And no one expected the Shockers to get past Gonzaga, provided they even survived Pittsburgh.
Now that the team is in the Final Four, the original 200 WSU fans will find themselves swallowed up by a screaming contingency of 4,000 or more. While they sat in the first 20 rows in Salt Lake City, many don’t have any idea how far away from the court their Final Four tickets will be.
But it’s a point of pride to these fans to support the Shockers regardless of how the team is doing – whether they’re having an up year or down, whether they’re in the NIT or the NCAA.
“When I got off the plane from Los Angeles, my friend said to me, ‘You are being rewarded for all your years of support,’ ” Weatherbee said. “And I thought to myself, ‘Yay. Finally.’ ”