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Loyal fans rewarded as Shockers make history as MVC champs

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 9, 2014, at 10:20 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 20, 2014, at 6:22 p.m.

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The Shockers’ NCAA Tournament destination and first-round opponent will be announced Sunday during the NCAA Championship Selection Show at 5 p.m. on KWCH. WSU’s first game will be March 20 or 21.

— Wichita State University sophomore Cole Heimerman and five of his best college friends drove all night to St. Louis in two separate cars, arriving groggy but determined early Friday morning.

They camped out in front of the Scottrade Center for hours every chilly morning to be sure they would get first choice of the seats in the WSU student section.

They spent money college students probably shouldn’t be spending on hotel rooms and gas, and late on Sunday afternoon, they faced a seven-hour drive back to Wichita – and classes on Monday.

But it was all worth it, they said, to watch the Shockers finally win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and cap off a 34-0 season with a very important win.

“It’ll keep going,” Heimerman said while watching team members cut down the nets after Sunday’s 83-69 win over the Indiana State Sycamores. “This isn’t the last year. They still have their two best shooters next year in (Ron) Baker and (Fred) VanVleet, so there will be more.”

The students were among another overwhelming section of Wichita State fans who traveled to St. Louis hoping to see history being made Sunday. An estimated 8,200 people filled the 19,000-seat arena on Sunday, said Larry Rankin, WSU’s assistant athletics director for media relations. That’s up from 7,500 on Saturday and 5,500 on Friday.

And the Shockers gave the fans what they came for.

Throughout the game – even during some tense second-half moments when the Sycamores were slicing the Shockers’ lead – the huge WSU cheering section produced Koch Arena-levels of noise, especially during a late-game spree of three-pointers from sophomore point guard VanVleet.

The tiny section of blue-clad Indiana State supporters was hopelessly outnumbered, and they all began exiting the Scottrade Center the second the final buzzer sounded. Only jubilant Shocker fans were still in the building to cheer for the Sycamores during the postgame awards ceremony, when the team was named MVC runner-up.

During the game, WSU fans jumped up and down in the stands, feverishly waving signs that read “Clearly not average,” “Release the Wessel” and “Cotton: the fabric of our team.”

One group of fans waved a sign bordered with twinkling lights that read, “Have we shocked you yet?” That one was featured in the postgame “One Shining Moment” video of tournament highlights.

Renee Appleby and her mother, Jean Botkin, had good seats under the basket for the run of the tournament – their reward for their dedication during the regular season. The two got tickets to every home game, mostly using services such as StubHub. They spent a small fortune, they admitted, “and we probably would have paid a little more than that, too,” Appleby said.

The two are longtime Shockers fans – Botkin attended WSU years ago – and when the magic of this season started, they didn’t want to miss any of it.

“You look back at players like Xavier McDaniel, and I wasn’t here to see that,” Appleby said. “But I feel like 30 or 40 years down the road, these guys and this time is going to be a part of history.”

Season-ticket holder and WSU alum Aaron Becker was in the St. Louis crowd all weekend and said he’ll be back in a week and a half if the Shockers end up in St. Louis for the NCAA Tournament. He bought tickets two months ago, not willing to gamble on missing a minute of this season.

The ride has been surreal, he said, but he thinks most Shocker fans realize what they’re witnessing.

“It’s a blast,” he said. “You’ve got to take advantage of it.

“Very few people will ever be able to say they got to see their team go 34-0.”

Reach Denise Neil at 316-268-6327 or dneil@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @deniseneil.

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