Herd of ‘Lopes Fans Spurs Team to Victory
By Doug Carroll
POMONA, Calif. — There was more than a little disappointment in the GCU women’s basketball camp last weekend when the Antelopes were denied an opportunity to host the NCAA Division II West Regional.
While the ‘Lopes were wrapping up a 4-0, season-ending trip to Hawai’i, the two teams ahead of them in the West Region rankings — California State University at Monterey Bay and Western Washington University — were losing in their conference tournaments. That should have been good enough to bump up GCU to a No. 1 seed and bring the regional tournament to Antelope Gym.
Alas, it wasn’t. The No. 1 seed and regional site went to Cal Poly Pomona.
The Antelopes and their fans made the most of it. Students and staff boarded two buses early Friday and arrived at Pomona’s 5,000-seat Kellogg Gym about an hour before tipoff, giving GCU a homecourt advantage away from home in a 53-51, first-round victory over Seattle Pacific University.
The passionate purple people stood out in number and volume, with more than 100 of them turning the otherwise sedate gym into Black Hole West. The distinctive “‘Lopes Up” cheer echoed throughout the expansive place as GCU rolled to a 32-17 halftime lead and held on for a nail-biting win.
“To have them all in our colors and cheering in the same section, we didn’t expect that,” said senior guard Kristi Girdley, who sprinted over to the fans at game’s end to express her appreciation and exchange high-fives. “It energized us.”
Teammate Stevie Kamp also couldn’t get over the turnout, which dwarfed Seattle Pacific’s crowd by about 10-to-1. The Antelope cheerleading squad also made the trip.
“We didn’t know people cared enough to come,” Kamp said. “It was great to see people so dedicated. We were happy and surprised.”
GCU’s students were led into battle again by senior Dan Ballenger, who supplemented his arsenal of cheers with a small dry-erase board purchased the day before at Wal-Mart. The board enabled on-the-fly, improvisational material such as “This is what the sun looks like in normal cities” (with a drawing of the sun) and “Hey #24, call him” (with an arrow pointing at Matt Shuman, standing next to Ballenger).
Fans were still cranking out handmade signs at halftime.
“Our students stepped up,” Ballenger said. “It was great to have the opportunity to come over here. A lot of colleges wouldn’t do this (for their students).”
Ballenger said he hopes to stay on at GCU for graduate study and already is working on ideas for a student section in the new Arena, which will be the home of the men’s and women’s basketball teams next season.
“It will start from the first week of school,” he said of his plans. “We made a lot of progress this year. We want the student section to grow with athletics and the rest of the University.”
Dr. James Beggs, a longtime professor in the College of Liberal Arts and devout GCU fan, put the impressive turnout in perspective.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, particularly for women’s basketball,” said Beggs, who spent the morning cheering on the men’s and women’s tennis teams at nearby Azusa Pacific University. “There’s more enthusiasm for all of the sports at our school. It’s more fun to win than to lose, but this is giving our students a great college experience.”
Several members of the players’ families also made the trip, including Girdley’s parents and grandparents (she grew up about an hour from Pomona) and Eli Johnson, the 80-year-old father of senior Katie Johnson.
Eli, who played high school basketball in Elgin, Ill., in the 1940s, had two purple foam fingers going for much of the game. He said he would stay for Saturday’s second-round game against Cal State Monterey Bay, a 68-59 winner Friday over Dixie State College.
If the Antelopes win Saturday, they’ll play again on Monday for the chance to advance to the Elite Eight in St. Joseph, Mo. However, Eli said he’d have to be back at work in the Streets Department for the City of Phoenix.
Reach Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or email@example.com.