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Published: Sunday, 1/12/2014 - Updated: 3 months ago

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Raucous fans return for Rockets

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Jordan Lauf never got to see Tim Reiser play basketball. There is a generation gap involved.

But when the most recent Napoleon High star chose the same college as his well-known Wildcat predecessor, they had a little talk.

“When I committed to Toledo, [Reiser] congratulated me and told me how special it was to play here,” Lauf said after Saturday night’s 86-71 UT victory against Central Michigan.

Reiser, the greatest point guard in Toledo history, played in the early 1980s at the tail end of the Rockets’ heyday. When he ran onto the floor at what was then called Centennial Hall, 8,000 seats were filled for every game.

That fever died down through the years. It was only natural. UT stopped winning regularly. And when 30 years had passed and the bottom had dropped out of the program, well, there were nights you could shoot a cannon off in the upper deck on the east side, mostly general admission seating, without fear of injuring a soul.

That’s how it was when coach Tod Kowalczyk arrived in 2010 in time for the second of back-to-back 4-28 seasons.

“I’d heard so much about the potential of the program and how the community had always supported UT, but then I got here and I could sense the disappointment,” Kowalczyk said. “The fans wanted it so badly, and I thought that if we could just get it turned around, we’d get 6,000 people in here on a regular basis and maybe sell out four or five times a year.”

We’ll have to debate which was the case Saturday — 6,000 or a sellout — as the Rockets ran their record to 13-2.

There is some role reversal involved in this debate.

After years of chuckling at announced attendance figures at Savage Arena and the Glass Bowl — you know, 21,580 for a frigid Tuesday night football game when maybe half that many are in the seats — UT spun the reverse wheel of fortune.

Officials announced a crowd of 6,189 in an arena that since its renovation seats about 7,300. There may have been 100 or 200 empty seats.

No more.

Fans were standing on the walkways behind both student sections in the end zones. On a night I figured UT would announce 7,000-plus, they left me chuckling again. They were conservative for reasons I can’t imagine.

The joint was jumping because the Rockets are back. Six players, Lauf being one of them, scored in double figures. Juice Brown had a double-double with 12 assists, and J.D. Weatherspoon had the same with 11 rebounds.

The game started and ended with Juice-to-J.D. dunks, and everything in between would have been better had the officials gone home because none of the 6,000-plus came to watch 48 fouls called.

“This was the kind of night I envisioned,” Kowalczyk said of the crowd. “And the best thing is I think this is just the start. We had one senior, Matt Smith, on the floor tonight, and he played five minutes.”

Lauf didn’t miss a shot while scoring 12 points in 25 minutes. He is already a crowd favorite at Savage Arena.

“I knew from the moment I got here this could be a special team, and all sports fans want a winner,” Lauf said. “I’m from the area, and I’ve been here to watch Toledo play a decent number of times, and I know that when Savage Arena is packed, there’s really nothing like it.”

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



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