I don’t know too much about basketball. I don’t know too much about baseball either. But I can get madly excited about both. There is something about feeling one with a large group of people cheering for a team, putting our souls into their hands, that gets the blood flowing. And, like in most other things that I take on – with the exception of love – I never expect or anticipate or fear loss. It comes, sometimes, but I am never there until the last long-shot from one end of the court is made, until the final strike out is called. I hope until the very end.
These days it is basketball that has my attention. Specifically, the Lower Merion High School team, the one that has always boasted an exceptional group of starters, but has not won States since Kobe Bryant lead them to victory in 1996. March 1st, 1996 to be precise. Like this:
So the Aces had another shot at beating arch-rival Chester this year, 17 years on, on the same day. They held their own through the third quarter and finally lost. Oh well.
But there’s something else about this team that has won my heart: their fans. Their fans who show up and stack up like sardines, end to end of a section of the stands they refer to as ‘The Dawg Pound.’
In the fall of 1999, Coach Gregg Downer met with the team and a group of student fan leaders to officially launch “The Pound.” More than just a “student section,” the Pound would lead chants, promote games, organize tailgates and road trips and design official t-shirts like a college-style student fan club. Fueled by their energized student fan base, the 1999-00 Aces rode the spirit and enthusiasm of “Dawg Pound I” to 15 consecutive wins, a Central League title, and a state playoff bid.
Year in and year out, the Dawg Pound helps give the Aces a distinct home court advantage. Each year brings a new style and design to the official Dawg Pound shirt. Each year leaders emerge at the forefront of the Dawg Pound, donning crazy costumes (Captain America, Superman, Batman, etc.) and sharing their unrelenting vocal chords and witty cheers.
During the Cinderella playoff run of 2004-05, the Dawg Pound caught the state’s attention for travelling en masse to far-flung gyms. Playing in the Western bracket, the Aces were forced to journey hundreds of miles for their games. No distance proved too great as busload after busload of fans showed up — including 12 student buses (nearly 700 total students) for a Tuesday night game against Erie Prep at State College.
I go to the games as much to shout myself hoarse, invoke Jesus Christ far too many times for a Buddhist, dance on the inside (so as not to embarass the Queen of my household), in general make a perfect fool of myself, and……to watch the Dawg Pound. I love those kids. I love that a group of teenagers between 14 – 18 of every gender and stripe can pour out of their cafetaria and form an honor guard for a team leaving to play a game. I love that they all volunteer to wear a certain color for a game – blue now, marroon the next, black on a third day, that they cram themselves in tight and often stand through the whole game. Yes, the whole game. I love that they do an axe-chop over their heads when the calls go against LM (unfairly, but of course!), that they are creative with their cheers, united in their hope. Here’s a look-see from December, 2012.
More than anything else, though, the moment I love best is when the entire Dawg Pound joins in for the last bars of the national anthem, drowning out whatever angelic voice is giving the song their best shot. There is something thrilling about their young voices rising, so proud and glorious, and overpowering, over the thousands of fans in the stadium. It always seems to stun the opposing team whose fans look on, slightly bewildered. Wait, they seem to be saying, aren’t we playing basketball?
They are. But life is played so often in the mind and what you carry in there is what carries you through everything else. For the Aces, it isn’t just a game with five players, two hoops, an orange ball. It is a way of life, a matter of tradition, the abandonment of individual reservations, the embracing of a school. It is school spirit at its best. Who can beat that? Not even the winners go away with that kind of love surrounding their players, their school.
The Aces pulled off a pretty stunning victory in the final minutes of the fourth quarter against Harrisburg. And tonight they head to Williamsport to take on the undefeated New Castle at the state semi-finals. Whatever happens on the court, there’s nothing but sportsmanship, gratitude, and real affection for them from their fellow-students – those who will ride the fan buses nearly three hours each way, and those who will be watching from home. Top that, New Castle.