13's lucky after all

The Winthrop Eagles celebrate Sunday after getting a 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles will play Washington St. in Denver on Thursday.
The Winthrop Eagles celebrate Sunday after getting a 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles will play Washington St. in Denver on Thursday.

More than a thousand people gave up part of a Sunday afternoon to go to a basketball arena without a game in it. They came to be a part of the celebration that would tell Winthrop University basketball fans where this year's team would go in the NCAA Tournament.

They ate barbecue and prayed for a close site. They cheered for the players as they were introduced and prayed some more. So many hoped for a game in Raleigh, N.C.; Washington, D.C.; or even Birmingham, Ala. All places close enough to come down with a mystery strep throat the night before, drive to the game, spend the rent money and watch history in person.

The rent can wait. This is the NCAA Tournament.

Resident little kid, Drew Parker, 5, a season ticket holder with his dad, Chad, cheered for all the guys.

"If it's Raleigh, no doubt we go," Chad Parker told me. "Him and me. Father and son. At the big game."

Michael Jenkins was introduced, and little Drew cheered, "Michael! Michael!"

I started praying for this wonderful father and his little boy, hoping they could go to the game.

Andy Buechert, his favorite because "He's tall," was introduced. "Andy! Andy!"

Then just a few minutes into the televised selection on CBS on a big screen in the Winthrop Coliseum, Winthrop's selection came up on the screen. Roars to a higher-than-expected seed, with a game against Washington State University on Thursday. The players mugged for the cameras.

"Winnable game, bring on those Cougars!" yelled Joe Versen, president of the fan group called the Eagle Club.

Versen didn't have to yell. He was sitting right next to me. But all the people in the coliseum were yelling. You yell when your team is announced and has a shot to win like last year when Winthrop won its first NCAA game, against Notre Dame, after seven tries in the Big Dance.

Then, the fans got word most were not invited to the prom.

The game Thursday will be in Denver. That is in Colorado. Where the Rocky Mountains are. Colorado is not close to anywhere except Wyoming. And it's at the top of those mountains, closer to the stratosphere and the moon than Rock Hill.

Gabe Kirk, 10, whose mom, Kimberly, already said he could skip school and go with her if the game was in Raleigh, was crushed.

"But we will be watching on TV," Kimberly Kirk said. "I'll throw a party to watch the game. I love my Eagles even if I can't be there in person."

A guy named Marty Monahan, a season ticket holder and great guy I met last year in Spokane, Wash., when he made the trip -- an even longer trip than Denver -- tried to calculate if he could make it.

"Any of five places, I was there; this time, I just don't know," Monahan said.

Under my breath, I said a bad word about the people who sent Winthrop to Colorado instead of somewhere closer.

A few people did say they were going, some of the true-blue fans like the Harpers of the Eagle Club, who are as loyal as any fans of any team. But Phil Jerauld, not a fan but a fanatic, who went to all but one of the 33 games this year, home and away, to Florida and Maryland and West Virginia and Mississippi and more, can't make it.

I wanted to cry for Jerauld and his wife.

Then, a lady named Diane Bailey walked by me and asked, "You're driving again, right? You took me there last year, take me again."

Then, several other fans, crestfallen because they couldn't go, asked, too.

Yes, we are. This morning, Sports Editor Gary McCann, one of the American deans of basketball writing and babysitter extraordinaire -- he babysits me -- and I leave for Denver. We will drive to the game.

Not as far as last year. Denver. 23 hours, 57 minutes away. 1,570 miles.

One way.

"Stroll 'cross town, nothin' to it," McCann muttered to me. That was after I overheard somebody ask him if he was talking to me since last year's trip. McCann's look said, "God, what have I done to deserve this? Why not Raleigh?"

So McCann and I, in a rented Chevy Malibu the color of dirty slush I have dubbed "The Shadow," are off.

It should take about two days.

If McCann doesn't dump me in Kentucky.

Follow Herald Sports Editor Gary McCann and Columnist Andrew Dys on the road to Denver at heraldonline.com. Look for blogs, podcasts and columns each day from the road and stops they make along the way as the duo who made the trip to Spokane, Wa., last year make their way to the Rocky Mountains.

Winthrop University

Location: Rock Hill

Mascot: Eagles

Enrollment: 5,012

Conference: Big South

Mileage to Denver: 1,570 miles

Washington State University

Location: Pullman, Wash.

Mascot: Cougars

Enrollment: 24,396

Conference: Pacific 10

Mileage to Denver: 1,166 miles

Tale of the tape

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