By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
This year’s leaders for the Grand Canyon University student cheering section, or Havocs, hesitated a tick when trying to describe why they are considered a top-flight group at basketball games.
It’s like trying to describe how to dance well.
But Havocs president, Joshua Gillespie, came up with this: “Going insane and Purple Pre-game Party is what we do,” said Gillespie, a junior.
That wasn’t a clinical diagnosis but a description of an evening in GCU Arena, which will be altered like everything else because of the pandemic. Wednesday night’s first game vs. Grambling State will include a student-only crowd of 250, physically distanced and masked between large photo cutouts of celebrities, administrators and others.
“Most student sections are just trying to figure out, how do we survive? We shifted that into, not only how do we survive but how do we thrive?” said Gillespie, getting fired up. “We can’t control ‘corona’, but we can take what we are given and make the best of it.”
First, back to the insanity.
“The music is really important. We have built a unique music niche,” he said. “There is a certain style that Havocs come to expect, so we try to deliver on that style while introducing new things.”
Extremely upbeat. Really fast. The faster the better, he said, getting fired up.
The electronic dance music turns the pregame festivities into a jump-around. The signature piece does not gently work toward a crescendo; it’s all crescendo. “Party Till We Die” involves the brilliant lyrics all we are, we are/all we are, we are/all we are, we are sung with the subtlety of a hundred barking tribesmen, followed by a dance beat that is a fire alarm at 120 beats a minute.
When Grace Haskins, a junior, first partook of the atmosphere, she went home without a voice. “Boise State, freshman year. It was just a crazy game, so much energy.”
It hooked her on the Havocs, and she became this year’s social media coordinator. The goal is to attract not just hard-core sports fans to athletic events but anyone who wants to connect with others and form a community. While jumping around.
“I’m sure everyone is chomping at the bit to come back to games,” she said.
Gillespie was hooked right away, too, as a high school athlete from Hot Springs, Ark., who wasn’t playing sports in college but still wanted to be involved and get connected to campus.
“The Havocs are so involved it feels like you are a part of the team,” he said.
He also offered a diagnosis after what he ranks as the loudest best game ever, last year against Illinois when GCU cut the lead to 4 with less than five minutes remaining.
“I’ve never heard anything louder,” he said. “I went home that night with a migraine.”
Dance, Cheer, Thunder and the Thundering Heard Pep Band all lead the Havocs down this path, one energized by students and encouraged by administration, the leaders say.
“The executive staff has gone above and beyond what we could hope for because it’s been challenging this year,” Haskins said. “They’ve done a good job of asking us how students can still be part of the same atmosphere. They are really treating you as just as important as them.”
They said they devised a few ways to keep the old traditions with adjustments and introduce some new ones.
For example, the unfurling of the GCU banner, rippling down the student section like a magical wave, wouldn’t be sanitary but will still happen – cascading from the second level.
New things have included a Havocs Hangout event earlier this semester, an outdoor event complete with Spirit Program teams, coaching on cheers and general firing up.
“We are trying to keep everyone excited no matter what happens,” Gillespie said.
What sets the Havocs apart, he continued, is channeling that excitement.
“It’s the unity of the student section. We are all on the same page. When it comes time to call chants during a game, we are all connected and can follow it,” Gillespie said. “We can make it loud from beginning to end.”
Havoc leaders say they get valuable skills for all the work, which is a lot of behind the scenes for big athletic events. They learn leadership, networking and organizational skills.
The Havocs also give back to the community with its Havocs with Heart program, spreading their spirit while helping at service events such as cancer fundraisers.
“We thought it was a good way to give back to the community and spread a little Havocs joy to everybody,” Gillespie said.
That joy should be in view Wednesday night, and at Friday’s first women’s basketball game, each team with new coaches and a new energy in what has been a time of too-often muted joy.
“The enthusiasm is off the charts,” Gillespie said. “Students can feel the energy of the team.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.