My first year at Loyola in 2016 — when I played my trumpet in Loyola’s Band of Wolves — the crowds at men’s basketball games were scarce. One of the biggest crowds that year was when 2,189 people watched Loyola beat San Diego State University at Gentile Arena.
After that game, Loyola head coach Porter Moser wrote a column in The Phoenix thanking everyone for coming and begging them to come back.
“You make a difference,” Moser wrote — a common phrase over his nine years at Loyola when he tells students to come to games.
Here we are, three seasons and a Final Four run later, and Loyola has sold out eight games since the 2017-18 campaign. Usually, I’m working at most home games, whether it be sitting on press row or taking photos. But I hadn’t been in the student section since Milton Doyle was the Ramblers’ star player during that 2016-17 season.
That changed last week when Loyola took on Bradley University in front of a sold-out crowd.
I got to the game about 20 minutes before tip-off. Not too early, not too late. Gentile wasn’t packed, but it also wasn’t empty.
The student section filled up pretty fast, though. In the time I went to the concession stand and got a beer — it’s good to be 21, right? — empty seats between sections 101 and 103 disappeared.
When Bradley came on the court, boos echoed from the student section. It was a stark contrast to my time in the band when we’d be the only ones booing. But when Loyola came out of the tunnel, the entire arena rose to its feet.
As usual, Loyola team chaplain Sister Jean received a rousing ovation when she came out for her pregame prayer. The students might’ve cheered as loud for Moser — which hasn’t typically been the case.
Loyola won the tip, and cheers rang out. On offense, the crowd didn’t do much unless the Ramblers made a big shot. That happened when senior guard Keith Clemons nailed a three with 4:56 left in the game. It was as loud as I’ve ever heard the 4,963-seat arena.
On defense, though, the atmosphere was electric.
The students weren’t necessarily yelling anything coherent. They were mainly trying to distract the Bradley offense and, effectively, force a turnover. But when sophomore center Franklin Agunanne sent an Ari Boya jumper into the stands in the first half, the place went nuts.
There were multiple points during the game when Moser kept raising his arms to pump everyone up, even looking like he was going to rip his famous jacket a couple times.
Porter Moser pointed to the student section after that sequence. It got LOUD in here. Thought he was going to rip his jacket from trying to pump up the crowd.— Nick Schultz (@NickSchultz_7) February 2, 2020
The crowd stayed for a majority of the game, which was good considering Loyola won by double digits. Moser went around to thank them all, just as he always does. But this time, he had an extra sparkle in his eye.
He walked up to my good friend Jonah Blatt, proudly donning his papal hat, and gave him a big old bear hug. He did the same to junior Thomas Scully, seated right next to Blatt.
“I thought the student section was absolutely the best I’ve seen,” Moser said two days later. “I heard it’s going to continue for the rest of our home games. I think it’s fun for them … and I just absolutely love our student body.”
He’s absolutely right. In four years at Loyola, I’ve never seen a crowd like that — and I’d like to think I’ve been at my fair share of games. It was definitely different being in the crowd instead of in front of it.
Maybe my ears will recover in time for the next home game Feb. 9.