Every Shocker fan with a working car or money for a plane ticket needs to make haste toward Salt Lake City.
So says Barb Rutschman, a member of the little-but-loud cheering section that watched the Wichita State University Shockers beat the Pittsburgh Panthers 73-55 Thursday in its first NCAA Tournament game.
“People need to get on some airplanes and head this way before Saturday,” said Rutschman, a never-miss-a-game fan who along with her husband, Larry, made the 14-hour, 1,025-mile drive from Wichita to Salt Lake City for the game.
The WSU fans at the game on Thursday were hard to miss. They were a splash of color-coordination – a black and gold beast taking up the first 20 rows of section V inside Salt Lake City’s Energy Solutions Arena.
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Seated around them were Salt Lake City locals and fans of teams playing later, many of them turning to stare at the collection of rowdy Kansans and wondering, often aloud: “What’s a Shocker?”
On the front row was coach Gregg Marshall’s wife, Lynn, and the couple’s two children. Behind her were WSU bigwigs, faculty, alumni, kids on spring break and diehard fans, all of whom had gathered earlier at the team hotel to send the players off to the arena in style.
The fans spent the first half of the game shouting admonitions at the referees.
“They’re all over our backs!”
“That’s a Shocker ball! Come on!”
“Let’s call it both ways, refs!”
They spent the second half giddily high-fiving and jumping up and down, watching their team’s lead grow and grow.
“I don’t think we get any respect from anyone,” said Tony Weatherbee, who along with his wife, Sherl, loudly offered the referees unsolicited advice every few minutes. “Everyone picked us to lose.”
Not even the prospect of facing No.1- seeded Gonzaga on Saturday fazed the fans. The Bulldogs are due to be upset at some point, said Sherl Weatherbee, and the No. 9-seeded Shockers are just the team to do the upsetting.
Might as well start planning for the game after Saturday’s, which would be played in Los Angeles.
“We leave Salt Lake on Sunday,” she said, “which is just in time to go home, do laundry, and pack up for L.A. That’s the plan. Stick to the plan.”
Other fans took a more cautious approach to planning past Saturday.
John Tusch, who lives in Kansas City but is such a Shocker maniac that he has season tickets, also was acting as an unofficial referee from the stands, wondering with a laugh why the actual refs never listen to his advice.
The Shockers played well, he said, but he wasn’t confident they could beat Gonzaga. His No. 1 hope, he said, is that the team plays well on national television.
But, he admitted, anything can happen.
“This was supposed to be a down year,” he said. “But look where we are.”
The WSU athletic office has sold its entire allotment of tickets for the NCAA tournament, WSU officials said Thursday. But the Salt Lake Energy Solutions Arena is selling tickets for Saturday’s games through its box office at www.energysolutionsarena.com.
Reach Denise Neil at 316-268-6327 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter at @deniseneil.