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Jumping on the WWU athletics bandwagon

Plenty of room for the ride in cheering on local sports teams

Western Washington University women's basketball erupts in cheers March 4
Western Washington University women's basketball erupts in cheers March 4
By Adam Race Guest Writer

“Left! Right! Left! Right!” Western Washington University’s student section jeers at the visiting basketball players from Montana State University Billings, mocking every step they take. More than 1,000 students and fans have filled Carver Gym to watch the Vikings play the visiting Yellowjackets on March 4, 2023, in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship game.

In a thrilling contest, Western stages a 17-point comeback to the elation of the Viking faithful, who storm the court as the final buzzer blares and mob the team in celebration of a conference title.

Many would consider a night like this a quintessential part of the collegiate experience: filling out a student section, getting loud and rowdy, heckling a rival school and cheering your team to victory before rushing the court surrounded by classmates and peers. 

However, Western sports teams have been too often overlooked by the student body and local community. 

The Vikings have a rich history of success across all of their sports programs and have sustained this success for decades. 

Western has won 12 national championships in its history, most recently in women’s soccer in December 2022, and consistently competes for titles in all 13 of its team sports. And yet, many do not consider Western a sports school.

The students do not throw support behind their teams like you see at schools such as the University of Washington or Washington State, and the Whatcom County community tends to support local high schools instead of the Vikings.

Many will immediately point to this simply being an immovable part of the culture, but saying that Western is incapable of being crazy for its teams is far from true. 

T.H. “Butch” Kamena was a Western student in the late 1980s and currently works as a professor and member of the school’s athletics department. Kamena fondly remembers the atmosphere of Viking basketball games against in-state rivals Central Washington during his time as a student.

“Just about every one of those games was sold out,” he says. “You could put 3,000 people in here. It was a madhouse, it was loud, it was obnoxious and it was incredible.” 

The late 80s stand out as one of the high points of student support at Western, but it’s far from the only time in the program’s long history that they have been the talk of Bellingham. Paul Madison, who has worked in Western’s athletics department for more than 50 years and now acts as the school’s sports historian, recalls the buzz generated in the early ‘70s for Vikings basketball.

“For The ‘71–’72 basketball teams, we could seat 3,000,” he said. “You had kindergarten kids naming their chickens after our basketball team. It was just phenomenal. They were totally into it.”

YouTube clips from less than a decade ago show Carver Gym packed with a sea of blue and white, erupting into celebration as the Vikings beat rivals Seattle Pacific and Central Washington on buzzer-beating shots in back-to-back years.

Attendances at Carver Gym have fluctuated wildly in recent years as the program reeled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now in 2023, while attendance has peaked above 1,000 over the last two seasons, madhouse gyms filled to the rafters with 3,000 fans seem like a thing of the past. 

This does not have to be the case.

Western is a school with not only a history of success, but the potential for raucous support, and the excellence displayed year after year by this program deserves the full weight of the student body behind it. 

Student support has been further incentivized in the 2023–24 season with free student admission. The move looks to increase accessibility for a student body that has at times felt disconnected from its sports teams. 

I implore you to put aside any preconceived notions of Division II athletics as an inferior product to Division I and come see the amazing things these student-athletes are capable of. Kamena, an avid fan of all levels of sports from high school to the pros, is a fierce advocate of what DII athletics has to offer. 

“Yeah somebody might be a half step slower or a couple inches shorter than a Division-I athlete,” he said, “but the quality of what they do is oftentimes no less.”

With Vikings basketball season in full swing, a women’s team ranked in the national top-25 and a men’s team brimming with talent and high-flying athleticism, 2024 could be a breakout for the new age of crazy nights in Carver Gym.

It’s time to jump on the Vikings bandwagon — because when it gets rolling, it can be truly special. 

Adam Race is a third-year journalism/public relations student at Western Washington University and a play-by-play announcer for WWU soccer, basketball, volleyball and softball.

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