SPORTS: ‘Gang’ing up for Oakland

By Postie Editors

Photos by BROOKE HUG/The Oakland Post

Most people probably think Danny Malendowski is out of his mind. I used to think so myself.

“OK, if you’re not going to the games tonight, you are seriously missing an event, man,” he told me as I casually mentioned that I had no plans to attend that afternoon’s OU basketball doubleheader, thus putting me in about an 80 percent majority on campus.

“First of all, this is your last chance to see arguably the best shooter in the entire country and one of the all-time greats at OU, Erik Kangas,” he said.

I could hear his voice quickly rising to a near-shout as he continued the pitch.

“Second of all, you need to see if OU is going to finish out this entire home season undefeated. Third of all, that’s the longest streak in the Summit League and we need to see them off well before they go to the tournament next week.”

I realized then that Malendowski, a sophomore public administration major, isn’t crazy, despite his unusual enthusiasm towards OU sports and his tendency to paint his body at games he attends.

He’s simply more suited to a time and place in which his vitriol and baritone can be better appreciated than on OU’s campus. Perhaps he would be better suited as an accomplice to Paul Revere on his famous Midnight Ride through Massachusetts, or as a carnival barker in the earliest days of the Ringling Brothers.

However, Malendowski may soon find himself in the majority if the Grizz Gang continues to expand their numbers as they have been lately. According to Coordinator of Athletics Marketing and Promotions Kate Burke, the Grizz Gang has evolved from a small-but-hardy group of dedicated fans in December 2007 into an officially recognized student organization and a syndicate of support totaling 800 members and growing.

“When I started here last year, we had a group that did a great job … but the athletics department looked to expand it and create ownership,” she said. “Since last year, we’ve developed a Spirit Squad of five great officers and 800 members, all working towards the same common purpose of growing OU athletics and making it more like a real university experience.”

For the love of the game

One Spirit Squad officer, senior human resource development major Darius Gary, might offer that there is a different common purpose afoot: diehard college basketball fandom.

Although Grizz Gang members receive varying amounts of credit (and thereby, an assortment of prizes) for attending any OU varsity athletic event, Gary and several other members signify the allegiance toward the Golden Grizzlies teams. Such an allegiance eludes students influenced by the “commuter school” mentality that hovers over the campus.

“I’ve always been a fan of college basketball, so the Grizz Gang was fitting for me seeing as I love it so much. I read all the stats and game reports before I started going here anyway, so it was just a natural fit,” he said.

Malendowski agreed.

“When I came to OU, I was already big into college basketball and I saw OU as kind of a hidden gem [for basketball fans],” he said. “Especially for a smaller school like OU, I knew going in that home court advantage is indispensable, so I try to come prepared for different games and make the other team feel demoralized.”

It certainly appears to be working. The OU men’s hoops team enjoyed an unprecedented streak of 13 straight home victories stretching back to the 2007-08 season, including every game at the O’Rena this season. The women’s hoops team has enjoyed similar success, running to a 10-game home winning streak this year.

The Grizz Gang effect isn’t confined to the hardwood, either. The men’s soccer team was undefeated at home this past season before falling to UMKC in the Summit League Championship Game in a shootout and the women’s soccer team used a late-season three-game home winning streak to propel themselves into the Summit League Championship Game.

The players and coaches recognize the correlation between the growth of the Grizz Gang and their recent success at home. They fully agree with the old, simple truth that there are more people in the stands than on the playing surface and that there is power in numbers.

“When I go to other schools and they have a section like [the Grizz Gang], it’s annoying,” said women’s basketball head coach Beckie Francis. “I’m glad that we have one so that when people come to our house, they have a little bit of interference and some noise behind them.”

Dan Waterstradt, a senior communications major and center on the men’s basketball team, agreed with the sentiment and compared OU’s student section favorably with others in the Summit League.

“I think that so far, out of all of the other schools that we’ve played at, our student section is the biggest and loudest,” he said. “Oral Roberts is big and so is North Dakota State, but night in and out, we draw huge numbers and they surpass any other school that I’ve seen so far.”

Road trippin’

Members of the Grizz Gang aren’t content to merely inspire and/or slightly disturb Grizzlies fans with their chants and antics.

They have traveled to the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne twice in the past two seasons on official road trips to watch the men’s and women’s basketball teams, in addition to several unofficial jaunts into enemy territory.

Mark LeMerise, a sophomore who shares the floor of 5 West Vandenberg Hall with Malendowski, was one of the 200 OU students, alumni and staff that took the most recent trip to IPFW Jan. 17 to see senior guard Erik Kangas hang a career-high 39 points on the Mastodons in a 93-88 Grizzlies victory, while the OU women cruised to a 79-64 win.

“The overwhelming attendance of Grizz Gang members compared to their meager and strangely dressed student section congealed OU’s student section as a legitimate factor in games,” he said.

LeMerise and Malendowski joined their RA at 5 West, Corey Schmidt, on an unofficial road trip to Cleveland to watch the men’s basketball team’s season opener Nov. 15 against Cleveland State. Although the Grizzlies fell by a score of 58-55, the venture wasn’t a total loss for the super fans.

“[Cleveland State] had no student section and very little community support,” Schmidt said. “There were a few scattered OU fans throughout their arena, which showed that OU fans will travel if the road games are close by.”

“After seeing their student section, a disorganized band of students countable on my fingers, my respect for the spirit and membership of the Grizz Gang grew,” LeMerise said.

On the road again

The Grizz Gang and the Spirit Squad have one more official road trip planned this season, to the Summit League Tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D. This comes on the heels of last season’s trip to Tulsa, Okla. to watch the men’s and women’s basketball teams in the 2007-08 Summit League Tournament that brought a record number of Grizz Gang members on the road.

Due to scheduling conflicts, the Grizz Gang is sending only two students to Sioux Falls, along with the five officers of the Spirit Squad. Despite the lack of a tangible bear-like presence at the Summit League Tournament, the Grizz Gang is confident in their teams to come away victorious.

“I expect the OU men’s team to beat ORU by around seven of eight, even though [ORU] won the championship last season,” Malendowski said. “Then they should go on and beat NDSU, even though it’ll be crazy tight. Then it’s on to the NCAA Champio

nship Tournament and hey, who knows? I think they’ll lose but I guess anything’s possible.”

Gary, who will be attending the Summit League Tournament, agreed that it may be best to expect the Grizz Gang to make an impact.

“We’re going to make an impact on how the games go,” he said. “They definitely feed off the energy that we provide and we’re excited to go.”