Smith Center bleachers rocked under the weight of more than 1,500 GW students Friday night, as Colonials fans celebrated the opening of the 1998-’99 basketball season.
For the first time in eight years, GW held Midnight Madness, a celebration of the first hours college basketball teams are allowed to practice under NCAA rules. It was also the first practice for the men’s team under new Coach Tom Penders.
“Part of the reason we didn’t do it before was because (former men’s basketball coach) Mike Jarvis was more conservative and was concerned for the players,” said Robert Chernak, vice president for student and academic support services. “The new coach really wants the aura we see tonight.”
The event began at 10:30 p.m. and by 11, more than 1,000 students had walked down a welcome aisle lined with Student Activities Center volunteers tossing glow-in-the-dark balls, pom-poms, magnets and necklaces into the air.
With the aid of strobe lights, music and the cheerleading and dance squads, students did the wave and sang the fight song.
“The spirit is much better this year,” said sophomore Yolanda Ferrell, who said she plans to attend more games this season. “More people are coming out.”
Director of Athletics Jack Kvancz said he hopes GW’s teams will attract the same turnout for games as they did for Midnight Madness. The men’s basketball team plays its first home game Nov. 13 against George Mason and the women’s team plays Nov. 16 against Georgetown.
“Make sure you come back,” women’s basketball coach Joe McKeown told the crowd. “This is going to be the most exciting year in women’s basketball.”
“There’s no better atmosphere for college basketball than right here,” Penders said. “Next year (commentator Dick Vitale) and ESPN will be here.”
The house lights dimmed at midnight. The cheerleaders and dancers, still out of breath from a hair-raising performance, lined up to guide players to center court as the two teams broke through a paper Colonials banner at 12:01 a.m.
McKeown pointed to the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight banners hanging from the rafters of the Smith Center and said, “We need a Final Four.”
The crowd cheered as the men’s and women’s teams dribbled and dunked on the court.
“We had two rules tonight,” Penders said. “First, have fun. Second, don’t get hurt. This was just a show.”
The scene in the stands mirrored years past with baseball hats capping buff and blue pom-pom hair, painted faces and, “Go GW!” spelled across the chests of five freshmen.
“I think we’ll do it at every game,” said Craig Shannon, one of the freshmen painted his chest.
Across the court, Dave Shield won a pair of round-trip airline tickets anywhere in the continental United States as part of a Spirit Week raffle.
“I’ll go wherever my girlfriend wants to go,” Shield said. “Someplace sunny and warm, someplace beautiful with a beautiful girl.”
Between the raffle announcements and speeches from event coordinators, cheerleaders and dancers led fans through “Buff and Blue” chants, danced and tossed gifts into the crowd.
“It seemed like the (squads) were having fun out there,” said second-year law student Nicole Gwinn.
The crowd was a mix of freshmen and upperclassmen experiencing their first GW basketball event and seniors who have never missed a game.
“This is the first year we haven’t been before everybody (on the line to get in),” senior Liz Weiss said. “I want this season to be like my freshman year – (the Colonials) were good then.”
Freshman Alana Conners said she was impressed with Midnight Madness.
“High school was nothing like this,” Conners said. “This is pretty big.”