By Laura Mortkowitz
The sometimes half-empty stands in Alumni Gym are beginning to look a lot more than half full this season.
The basketball teams needed some kind of kick-start for the 2007-2008 season after the women finished 2-28 last year and the men barely pulled a winning season at 16-15.
Luckily for both teams, they just might be getting it. The men’s team is on a nine-game winning streak, with two important home games this weekend. The women are 6-16.
The hype for the men’s basketball team is partly thanks to senior Jason Thompson, an NBA prospect who has been highlighted by ESPN and named MAAC Player of the Week. That’s not even mentioning his busy summer at three different camps playing against top college players and even NBA player Lebron James. Senior Kevin Hickman attributed the interest in Rider’s basketball team to Thompson.
“There’s been a lot of buildup this year,” he said. “We have a lot of publicity and hype because of [Thompson]. He got so much attention over the summer.”
Beyond the spotlight on Thompson, Head Coach Tommy Dempsey will be the first to point out the other players: junior Harris Mansell, junior Lamar Johnson and even Thompson’s younger brother, sophomore Ryan Thompson.
“I think we have a team that plays an exciting style,” Dempsey said. “I think that we have a couple of exciting players. We’ve done wonderfully at home so far, and people are definitely getting behind us and we certainly appreciate it.”
It’s noticeable to the players that school spirit has increased. Johnson said he has seen a difference from his freshman year and this difference helps the players.
“We feed off of their energy,” he said. “They make the atmosphere here.”
He added that the team “did OK last year,” but this year people are expecting 20 wins from the men.
The Broncs’ improvement has even caught national attention. In a Feb. 4 Associated Press poll to determine the top 25 teams in the country, Rider received one vote for placement in the prestigious rankings. However, the team made the cut among the top 25 mid-major teams.
A preview NCAA tournament bracket on espn.com even predicted that Rider would make it into the tournament as a No. 14 seed.
So far, the men’s record (17-6) is much better than last year’s, with many games ahead. The team is averaging more points per game (77.3) than last year (70). Attendance has risen from 1,477 to 1,587 per game and continues to climb. If the team keeps its winning streak at home, and if Jason Thompson has a few more scuffles at games, attendance will only continue to climb.
“I’ve never been to a game,” said sophomore Pete Richter. “The team is OK. I just don’t have much interest in college-level sports. Although, maybe if there were more fights I’d go.”
Richter was referring to an incident when Jason Thompson felt someone elbow him and instinctively pushed back, throwing the opponent to the floor. He was ejected from the game but still awarded cheers by Rider students.
The women’s basketball team, which performed poorly in the past under the coaching of Tori Harrison, is finding some new heart with Head Coach Lynn Milligan, a Rider alum.
“I think Lynn has done a terrific job of breathing life into the women’s program and people are excited about that,” Dempsey said.
The fans present at basketball games have been particularly noticeable for the women’s team, which has had to contend with minimal crowds. Senior Janele Henderson said she has seen a drastic change from her freshman year.
“We have more fans than we ever had, which is really exciting,” she said. “You actually hear a bunch of noise coming from the crowd rather than silence.”
The noise, the fans and the excitement understandably have an effect on the players when they know their school is there for them. According to Milligan, who has noticed more school spirit than when she played in 1992, when students come out to games it helps the players get motivated.
“It gives us a little boost,” said senior Kelli Sawyer. “I like it. I hope people continue coming to our games. I like seeing people there.”
Yet, despite the rise in spirit and attendance at games, it’s undeniable that the men’s team has a larger following than the women’s. This is not an incident isolated to Rider. Other schools have also experienced this phenomenon.
“The turn out is awful for the girls, but pretty good for the boys,” said junior guard Camille Mammolite from Ramapo University. “Our boys are the NJAAC champs. [But] the only people that have school spirit are the athletes themselves.”
At the University of Maryland, school spirit is very high and there is a lottery system to get tickets for some of the more important men’s basketball games, said junior Lynsie Reavis.
“The men’s basketball team at Maryland is a big deal,” she said. “School spirit is real intense on campus and there has often been riots surrounding the basketball games. The women’s team, however, does not get as much support.”
In the case of Rutgers University, students have said that every other sport has been overshadowed by football. Often this is true for many schools, but not at the University of Maryland.
“We also have a football team on campus,” Reavis said. “There is a good turnout for those games, but not as much as basketball.”
Junior Tammy Meyers transferred to Rider from George Mason University, and she has noticed a difference in the support between such a large school and Rider’s smaller atmosphere. Although the crowds were larger at her former school, at Rider there is a more personal feel to the support, Meyers said.
“[At George Mason there] were a lot of big turnouts,” she said. “At Mason they supported, but the support doesn’t mean as much when you know everybody, and you hear the people and see the people from your classes actually here supporting you.”
The fact that Rider is a small school can actually play to the team’s advantage when in the Broncs Zoo. Since most teams are used to playing in arenas with thousands of people in the stands, the smaller, closer atmosphere can be disorienting, said Milligan.
“For them to come into our gym, where the fans are basically on top of you, is a huge advantage for us,” she said. “It’s something that we’re used to, and teams coming in can get rattled by that.”
Milligan added that the school spirit generally impressed her now that she’s returned to Rider. With the addition of the SRC and more activities on campus has come a larger following, which was needed. The last time the women’s team even had a tying record was the 1999-2000 season (14-14). The best record the team ever had was all the way back in the 1981-1982 season with 26 wins and only 7 losses under Head Coach Agnus McGlade-Berenato.
Not even the men’s team has had such a successful season in its history, with the best season record reaching 21 wins and 9 losses in the 1993-1994 season under Head Coach Kevin Bannon.
“The die hard fans have been around since I played and their support is hugely appreciated and we know they’re going to keep coming back,” Milligan said. “We’d like to hit another area of fans within the community, within campus.”
It’s obvious that the more a team wins, the better the support will be. However, the reverse is true as well: The better the support, the more a team is likely to win. All the players agreed that knowing fans are in the stands helps them play.
“We need them for every game,” Johnson said. “They don’t call them the 6th man for nothing.”