Personal Connection With Fans Keeps Women’s Basketball Team Fired Up
By Michael Ferraresi and Doug Carroll
GCU News Bureau
Because of their late-afternoon start, some women’s basketball games at GCU Arena begin with only a couple dozen passionate Antelope fans in the house. The average road game draws a few friends and family members.
But the playoffs seem to change things for the purple-clad diehards who consider the women’s basketball players like family.
Many of those fans gathered late Wednesday morning on campus to see the women leave on the bus to San Diego, where they will face Cal Poly Pomona at 1 p.m. Friday in a first-round West Regional rematch of GCU’s 68-61 postseason loss last March. Included were some who will leave at 4 a.m. Friday on a fan bus to San Diego.
Some supporters prefer the games of the women’s team to those of the men’s team, which plays Friday night against Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., in their regional game.
Fans enjoy being able to high-five and connect with the women’s players as if they’re part of the team.
“You feel like they appreciate you as much as you appreciate them,” said Bill Yearnd, who will be among 25 fans taking the early morning bus from Phoenix.
Yearnd, a former basketball coach who works in GCU’s Institutional Research Department, said he and his wife, Rose, have followed the team for more than three years. They bring snacks to practices and offer encouragement for the players if they see them struggling.
“I like them as people,” Yearnd said. “These girls aren’t trying to emulate anyone. They’re just trying to play ball the best they can. And they’re dedicated.”
Last year, Yearnd was among the fans who traveled to Pomona, Calif., to watch the playoff loss in the West Region finals. Cal Poly Pomona was ranked No. 1 in the region last year. GCU was No. 2, narrowly missing a shot at hosting the regional in Phoenix.
This season, GCU is seeded No. 3 and Pomona No. 6. The rematch gives the Antelopes an opportunity to avenge a melancholy ending to the college career of GCU All-American Samantha Murphy. Pomona’s team was led by All-American Reyana Colson, and both women also were Academic All-Americans.
GCU organized three buses of fans in 2011, including dozens of students, to outnumber Pomona fans on their home court. Fans who attended the game said Pomona appeared to be flagging down people on campus to counter the GCU presence.
The winner of the GCU-Pomona game will play Saturday against either Cal State Los Angeles or Alaska-Anchorage. The West Region championship game is scheduled for Monday. The regional winner will advance to an eight-team field for the NCAA Division II championship, hosted March 20-23 in San Antonio.
Last year, Pomona was a winnable game, according to Trent May, the Antelopes’ head coach.
“We felt like we came out and didn’t play our best game,” May said about the 2011 heartbreaker, which saw GCU shoot only 25 percent in the first half (including 2-for-16 from 3-point range) before rallying late. Murphy went an uncharacteristic 8-for-23 from the field, scoring 24 points to Colson’s 28.
This year provides a neutral site on the campus of the University of California at San Diego. The Pomona team will be close to its fan base but still playing on the road.
May added that GCU has loved the road, going 11-0 away from the Arena this season.
“It gives us confidence that we’ve been so successful,” he said.
He said his team was aware of the “revenge factor” with Pomona, especially with the season on the line.
“No matter who you’re playing, you want that feeling,” May said. “Regardless of who you play this time of year — you lose, you go home.”
He agreed that GCU’s fans play a big role in motivating his players, who seem to thrive on the personal connection.
“I can’t say enough about our fans,” sophomore Maylinn Smith, the team’s leading scorer, said before boarding the bus. “They bring so much enthusiasm. They’re dedicated. They don’t just come to watch the game — they come to watch us.”