They hold up cut-out big heads of players and coaches. They are color coordinated. They have nicknames. They lift their players on the basketball court with non-stop noise and try to demoralize the opponent.
They are the student sections.
Every high school boys basketball team has one.
The better they play, the more students come out, the louder it gets, the more intense the play becomes.
“It definitely brings the energy and keeps us hyped,” Tempe Corona del Sol senior center Connor MacDougall said.
On Tuesday night, Corona del Sol students were in their place nearly an hour before tip-off, packing the section for an early January matchup against the No. 2-rated team in Division I, visiting and unbeaten Chandler Hamilton.
The Tribe, as they call themselves, was eerily quiet until Casey Benson fed Jarrett Givens for a basket with 1:53 left in the opening period for an 11-6 lead. Then, the students erupted.
It was their version of the “Silent Night,” which has become increasingly popular among college and high school student bodies for basketball games across the country.
The top-ranked Aztecs went on to score 10 more points in the final 1:21 of the period and had Hamilton buried in a 21-6 hole, with Corona students chanting, ‘Let’s play football,’ at Hamilton’s students.
“Coach Duane at first was going, ‘Why are you doing Silent Night for this game?’ ” senior baseball player Trevor Wood, a leader of the Tribe student section, said. “He wanted to have that energy from the beginning. Afterward, he said, ‘That was good.’ ”
Corona del Sol students, decked in black jerseys, all wearing numeral 14 in orange lettering, have tripled in numbers since the school captured back-to-back state championships and is expected to win another this year.
“It’s like having a sixth man,” Benson said. “We have the best student section in the state, in my opinion. They come out to every game. They come out on the road.”
In mid-December, Cave Creek Cactus Shadows held its “Silent Night,” with students, decked in Santa hats, dead silent until their team gets to 10 points, then becoming ear-piercing loud for the rest of the game, standing up throughout.
“We’re not a huge school, but we’re all tightly knit, and we’re friends with everyone on the basketball team,” Cactus Shadows junior Connor Stirling, one of the state’s top swim sprinters, said. “We love coming out and showing our school spirit.”
Years ago, schools prohibited banners and signs to be held up at games, for fear they could incite fights.
Schools mostly run a tight ship in their gyms, monitoring the students to make sure they don’t cross the line of poor sportsmanship.
Entire student sections have been kicked out of games for unruly behavior.
“From the officiating standpoint, we deal with student sections through the site administrator,” said Gary Whelchel, the Arizona Interscholastic Assocation state commissioner of officials. “The only way that an official is going to get involved is if the student section is using profanity or making crude, unacceptable remarks to the players on the court, or if they throw items onto the court.
“There are times when the official has requested the student section not occupy the first row of bleachers for safety reasons. If a student section reaches a point where they need to be dealt with from a game management perspective of the official, they will go to the site administrator and request the student or students be removed.”
Avondale Westview coach Brendan McEvoy has seen student sections get a little out of control, but only to the point where security or an administrator issued a warning and remained in close proximity for the rest of the game.
“Sometimes, the pack mentality makes everyone a tough guy because they know their words are anonymous,” McEvoy said. “I did appreciate the togetherness that the Corona fans represented. They were by far the most organized and clever bunch. I had never heard the chant, ‘If you’re winning and you know it clap your hands,’ followed by, ‘If you’re losing and you know it clap your hands,’ and nobody claps. Hilarious.”
Westview has two freshmen on the varsity roster. When McEvoy subbed in freshman Josh Tafoya in the third quarter of a close game at Phoenix Brophy Prep, Tafoya stood right in front of Brophy’s “Red Army” student section for about 15 seconds, before being handed the ball to inbound it.
“They were all over him, making short jokes, asking him if he’s up past his bed time, telling him his mommy is waiting for him outside,” McEvoy said. “One kid kept saying over and over, ‘Don’t look at us, Joshua.’ The look on Josh’s face was like a deer in the headlights times 10. I’m usually pretty focused during a game, but I found myself giggling at that.”
Student sections start to heat up in January with sectional and rivalry games.
There is the Green Team at Phoenix Sunnyslope, the Nest at Cactus Shadows, the Red Zone at Chandler Seton Catholic, the Red Army at Brophy Prep, the Hecklers at Phoenix Shadow Mountain, the Gold Rush at Tempe Marcos de Niza, the Snake Pit at Phoenix North Canyon, the Valley Fever at Chandler Valley Christian, the Bird Cage at Scottsdale Chaparral, the Dawg Pound at Queen Creek, the Zoo Crew at Tempe McClintock, the Phalanx at Scottsdale Prep, just to name a few.
Sometimes, there is the leader of the section, the maestro who orchestrates chants. At Scottsdale Desert Mountain, a student or two will come out during timeouts, face the student body and lead them in their version of the “roller coaster.”
“The section is right by where we enter the court before warm-ups, so when we step on the court, their energy increases as we come out,” said Sunnyslope senior center Michael Humphrey, one of the state’s top players who has signed with Stanford. “Then, during introductions, the kids have poster-board heads of all the players and jump around to pick up the intensity even more and that is after they have already made the opponent feel like nobody cares about them.“During the game, the Green Team does a superb job of jumping on the opposing team for mistakes and being great distractions during dead balls. They do an awesome job critiquing opponents. But how they cheer for us is amazing.
“There is constant ruckus when needed, and, when there is a big play, the place goes nuts.”
Some are more creative than others with their chants and more fervent, depending on the opponent. Brophy Prep and Phoenix St. Mary’s have had a long running tradition of jamming gyms with student sections trying to outdo the other. Brophy students have found creative ways of getting their messages across without having signs removed by school personnel.
One year, a Brophy student got the idea of bringing a large eraser board, scribbling something on it that got everyone revved up, before erasing it.
There are been times when sections had to be taped off, so they don’t spill over onto the floor, as the game is going on.
“Our student sections have been pretty good,” Sunnyslope coach Ray Portela said. “They know the lines not to cross. Teachers kind of supervise. They know right from wrong.”
Students still storm the court, despite pleas not to from public-address announcers. But coaches are getting better about getting their players out of the way of potential danger and getting them in the locker room after games.
Corona del Sol coach Sammy Duane Jr., did that after Tuesday’s 67-32 win over Hamilton, whisking his players immediately into the locker room after shaking hands with the Huskies.
“Lately, with the winning, it’s really crazy here,” Duane said. “The buzz around campus is amazing. That student section for a Tuesday night was amazing. They really helped us.”