Just a game?
Just a tournament?
Just another Final Four?
Not in Shocker country, where people lined up by the hundreds on Easter morning to get first pick of Final Four T-shirts emblazoned with WuShock’s distinctive scowl.
Not here, where fans started making travel plans the minute Wichita State bested the Buckeyes, filling three charter flights and countless Atlanta hotel rooms in a matter of hours.
Not in Wichita – or Derby, or Valley Center, or Cheney – where ministers peppered their Sunday sermons with basketball references and where a trip to the grocery store in a WSU T-shirt will get you a smile and a hearty thumbs-up.
“It’s been crazy – but good crazy,” said Tim Loftin, an employee at Tad’s Locker Room at 21st and Webb Road.
“Everybody in town’s excited, because this is new territory for Wichita State. It’s been a long time. We’ve got a great little tenacious team that’s just out there shocking everybody.”
Sure, it’s a game.
But it’s also much more than that, said Ken Vandruff, director of communications for Go Wichita.
“There’s no way our city could buy this kind of advertising. The deeper the Shockers go in the tournament, the better it is for the Shockers and for WSU,” Vandruff said.
“I bet there’s been a big spike in the number of times Wichita has been Googled in the past couple weeks. There are people out there saying, ‘Hey, what is that school all about?’ or ‘I wonder what that city is like.’ ”
What’s Wichita like?
On Sunday it seemed to be grinning from horizon to sunny horizon – warming temperatures, puffy white clouds, Easter baskets filled with candy and a Shocker victory still fresh in our minds.
Shirlene Ulbrich, a lifelong Shocker fan, described her mood in one word:
Ulbrich, who followed the WSU team to New York in 2011 to witness the NIT title, said she plans to drive with family members to Atlanta for the Final Four.
“We’re still in the process, but we got our (game) tickets. We’re up high, but we’ll take it,” she said.
“My brother got to go in ’81. He saw the Shockers beat KU, and it was so exciting. And like he said, it’s a chance of a lifetime. I’m marking things off my bucket list.”
Debbie Kennedy, president and CEO of the Wichita State University Alumni Association, said three charter flights to Atlanta were full by about 4 p.m. Sunday. The group is trying to arrange another flight for people on a waiting list.
“We’re making history, and people don’t want to miss it,” Kennedy said. “That’s why they move fast, and they’re doing everything they can to get out there.”
Each of the three charter flights will carry about 145 people, Kennedy said. Travel packages through the Alumni Association that include the flight, four nights lodging and game tickets cost about $2,400 a person for double occupancy, she said.
For fans who already have their plane tickets or plan to drive, land packages still are available through the Alumni Association starting at about $1,600 per person.
An official with a Nashville-based sports marketing firm said demand for his company’s Final Four fan packages, which start at about $1,400 a person, has been “unbelievable,” especially among Shocker fans.
“Our call volume is 3-to-1 Wichita State, at least,” said Patrick Glass, president of Glass Entertainment Management. “The other teams are making plans, sure, but so far the buzz and the demand is mostly Wichita State.”
Just a game?
But even Wichitans who normally don’t go crazy over sports have been huddling around televisions these past few weeks and likely will be tuning in again when Wichita State meets Louisville for the national championship semifinal game Saturday.
“I love how it feels like a community. People are cheering and smiling, and it’s just great,” said Lacy Hansen, a Shocker alum.
“It’s nice to see us get unified about something so joyful.”