In the Webster University men’s basketball team’s conference tournament semifinal game at Grant Gymnasium last season, fans from MacMurray College overpowered a much smaller Webster fan section.
Webster lost that game to the Highlanders, even though the Gorloks were the No. 1 seed in the tournament. The loss ended Webster’s season.
This year, Webster athletics expects to have a much stronger fan base than ever before.
“We as a staff noticed that isn’t the purpose of a home-court advantage, and we tried to figure out the best way to energize our fan base,” said Tom Hart, Webster director of athletics.
At the Webster volleyball match on Tuesday, Sept. 12, almost the entire athletic department filled the stands at Grant Gymnasium. Hart is selecting one home event from each sport and is encouraging all staff and student athletes to attend and support their peers.
Volleyball coach Merry Graf said the crowd definitely contributed to her team’s 3-1 win over Westminster College.
“We already have a great parental following and it’s awesome,” Graf said. “Now to know you’re going to have students is a really good thing, too.”
Webster is an NCAA Division-III school. Some athletes know their events don’t get the same attendance as D-I or D-II schools do, but an initiative such as this is seen as a big step.
“I wish it was different,” said Kyle Leonard, senior midfielder on the men’s soccer team. “It’s better as a player in front of a large crowd of your peers so you can show off your skill.”
Even in a sport like cross-country where Webster athletes typically don’t attend the meets, the cross-country runners felt the support at their first race — the Washington University Early Bird in Forest Park on Sept. 9.
“It’s a lot of encouragement that you get when you do well in front of a lot of your peers and people you know,” senior runner Daniel Henkey said. “It’s just amazing to see people out there at 8 a.m.”
Some Webster athletes weren’t excited to be pushed to support sports such as cross-country.
“Watching cross-country is just hard,” Leonard said. “You see them once at the start but then they are gone, and then it’s like, ‘What now?’”
Even for the volleyball match against Westminster, some Webster athletes didn’t want to attend. Jordan Fosburgh, Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) co-president for the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and women’s soccer junior forward, said she heard some of these complaints.
“Some people felt that they didn’t want to go,” Fosburgh said. “But once they got there, we all got into spirit and showed our support.”
Hart and the athletic department are looking forward to continuing the initiative and will attempt to maximize attendance in off-campus sports as well.
The baseball team, which plays its home games at GCS Ballpark in Sauget, Ill., often supports other Webster teams’ events. Senior pitcher Zach Schneider said he and many of his teammates are regular spectators at home basketball and volleyball contests, and they hope other athletes do the same for them.
“I think it should just be common courtesy that we should go to other events,” Schneider said. “It is unfortunate, though, that our home field is 20 minutes off campus. So, you can’t do much about that.”
In the past, Webster has provided free bus transportation to take students to and from games, but the turnout wasn’t great.
“We have to try to figure out what works and what doesn’t,” Hart said. “We just let them know that’s the game to go out and support their fellow student athletes, and we’ll see what happens.”
The next time the Webster athletic department is scheduled to attend a sporting event is for the men’s soccer game on Thursday, Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. against William Woods University at St. Louis Soccer Park.