You’ve heard it a million times, from coaches, players, and executives: It’s all about the fans.
On this warm winter morning in November, approximately 5,000 4th-7th graders from around Central Texas swarmed the lower bowl at the Frank Erwin Center for an 11 a.m. Texas women’s basketball tip-off against Houston Baptist University. On this day, the oft-uttered phrase had never been more true.
Children from more than 40 area elementary schools participated in the sixth annual 40 Acres Field Trip creating pockets of screaming kids in yellow, red, purple, pink, violet, and burnt orange that dotted the arena. Before tip-off, the energy level was bordering on overwhelming.
But coming off a tough loss to Stanford on Monday night and a short break following the west coast trip, Texas head coach Karen Aston said that team was happy to have an atmosphere like this.
“When you walk out there and hear those screaming kids, it’s really exiting. It’s something our players and program takes very seriously,” Aston said. “It energizes our team. You realize the impact that having young people watch your team play has.”
Texas went through its typical pregame routine, except today was everything but. The same pyrotechnics went off, their acrid stench and dissipating haze lingering into the first quarter, but each blast was greeted with a raucous scream. The National Anthem was sung, but by a Dripping Springs middle school girl who belted out each note perfectly. The children did all the same cheers you’d normally hear at a Texas basketball game, except in a much higher pitch, and the normal plodding one-two punch of the DE-FENSE chant was sped up, becoming like the sonic equivalent of a lightweight prizefighter pummeling a speed bag. And honestly, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard 5,000 children scream “Turn down for what!” or audibly groan when “We Will Rock You” cuts off before the chorus because the ball has been inbounded.
Texas took a wire-to-wire lead, beginning with a game-opening three-pointer from Brooke McCarty. The junior guard scored 16 points in a hyper-efficient 20 minutes on 6-8 from the floor and 4-5 from behind the arc. Freshman Joyner Holmes, the No. 2 recruit in the nation, made her first appearance in the starting lineup. She earned her spot, scoring 22 points, grabbing 9 rebounds, and blocking 3 shots.
Still, with the game in the bag for Texas by the beginning of the third quarter, the cacophony didn’t let up, and every once in a while, a couple kids would randomly shriek at the top of their lungs. It was frightening. It was disorienting. It was pure joy.
According to Lago Vista Middle School assistant principal Jayme Spexarth, the feeling was mutual. Lago Vista ISD brought its ESL students from the middle school and intermediate school.
“On the bus the whole way here they were talking about it,” Spexarth says. “They couldn’t wait. The whole experience, they’re loving it.”
Spexarth says that its important event not just for the entertainment value, as many of them have never been to a college sporting event or even to a college campus.
“The exposure to the college environment is huge—it broadens their perspective. If they have fun here they start to see themselves on a college campus,” she says. “Just putting them in this environment opens their mind to the prospect of them getting in.”
HBU head coach Donna Finnie saw the game as a net positive despite the loss.
“Getting those kids in here is not just about Texas basketball; it’s women’s basketball,” she said. “Seeing so many kids in the stands … maybe there’s some we’ll recruit. It may inspire someone to take up the game.”
Just after the final buzzer sounded, signaling a 98-46 Texas win, Aston echoed the “for the fans” sentiment. Radio host Craig Way asked the fifth-year UT coach what a game like today meant to her program, and her answer echoed through the stands, even if many of the children in attendance were too busy scurrying to meet players and talking amongst themselves to notice.
“This is by far my most favorite game of the year. I can’t thank the school districts in our communities enough for bringing you here today,” she said. “I hope this is something that never ends.”
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