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Wednesday, August 27, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 2/17/2013

Fans have love affair with Rockets

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

The fourth-largest crowd in Toledo women’s basketball history — 5,712 — watched the Rockets blast Kent State on Saturday afternoon. The number was swelled a bit by the annual “Rockets for the Cure” promotion to benefit breast cancer awareness and research.

Regardless, it was UT’s fifth straight crowd at Savage Arena equal to or above the season-average draw of 4,143 fans. The Rockets will lead the Mid-American Conference in women’s attendance for the 23rd consecutive season and if it wasn’t for men’s teams from Ohio and UT we wouldn’t have to insert a gender reference.

That’s right. There are 10 MAC men’s teams averaging fewer fans than Toledo’s women. Granted, Kent’s women are not good, as evidenced by the 82-45 score despite some liberal substituting by the Rockets, but consider that there were more people in Savage for this one than the Flashes’ total attendance for 11 home games this season.

“We have a great appreciation for our fans,” said UT senior center Yolanda Richardson. “We know how fortunate we are. Believe me, we never take it for granted.

"It’s one of the things brought up in every pre-game speech; that we play hard and give them everything we’ve got so that they keep coming back.”

Home dates on the women’s schedule are more than games. They are happenings. The team’s fan club forms a human tunnel when the Rockets come out for final warm-ups and it tells a story with little girls and old ladies, all equally excited, and lots of bald fans, some of them babies in their mother’s arms and some older gents on their wives’ arms.

Black and white, dressed in blue and gold, or on this day a lot of pink, it is a melting pot coming together with a shared interest, the Rocket women, and they sing and clap and roar and sway from the minute they pass through the gates until the band plays the alma mater and one last blast of the fight song.

Even then, they don’t rush for the exits because their favorite players are likely to climb into the bleachers and schmooze for a while.

How has all this happened?

There’s no question about a hangover from the Women’s NIT postseason championship two seasons ago, when the title game at Savage drew a MAC record 7,301. There is a coach who has connected with the community like few before her. There is, arguably, the most popular player in school history.

It has grown and grown, but it has been going on for years. Of course, the Rockets have been winning for years, too. If they were 2-22 we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

They are 22-2 now and it’s a fourth straight 20-win season and the 17th in school history. The current five-member senior class bumped its record to 100-29 on Saturday.

Coach Tricia Cullop said the NCAA tournament is always the goal, but she knows that the 2011 WNIT run was the best thing that ever happened to her program.

“We had a group of people, I don’t know, maybe 1,000, maybe 1,500, who had never experienced women’s basketball and they came to that tournament and got hooked,” Cullop said. “They’ve stayed with us. I think they see we have class kids, on and off the court, and that our best players are the hardest workers, the most humble and unselfish kids on the team.”

Yes, the Rockets are an easy team to like. And they are in the midst of a love affair with their fans.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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